Solitary Mystics and Married Priests:
complementary facets of the "New Evangelisation"?
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


The "problem" of celibacy
The compulsory celibacy required of Catholic priests continues to cause divisions of opinion in the Church for several reasons.
One is that over the last forty or fifty years many priests have left to marry, although it should be noted that others leave the ministry for quite separate reasons. Far from being scandalised when this happens most ordinary church-going Catholics now seem to react in a very understanding way. In fact one commonly hears remarks, which are perhaps not intended to be taken literally, to the effect that "its always the good ones who leave"!
Second, the reception of Anglican clergymen into the ranks of the Catholic priesthood during the 1990's has accustomed us all to the concept of priests who have a married life and families of their own.
Again, most Catholics without any great ideological axe to grind on the issue seemed to view this development in itself as positive. Any scepticism about the suddenness of the former High Anglicans' conversion to Popery, following the Anglican decision to ordain women, centred on the special treatment being given to individuals whose theological views were conspicuously conservative. This involved Catholic traditionalists in some amusing contortions at the time: effusive in welcoming reinforcements to their cause but anxious to reiterate the tradition of a celibate male clergy.
Third, and most seriously, the exposure of "paedophile priests" has led many people to conclude that celibate ministry has been either a cause of abuse or else a cover for men with predatory designs on children and adolescents.
I believe myself that the analysis of the problem both by secular commentators and also, sadly, by many church members has often been lazy and unenlightened, especially when child abuse is advanced as the almost inevitable consequence of sexual abstinence and pre-conciliar repression (the liberal knee-jerk response) or else as a baleful result of sixties permissiveness and post-conciliar chaos (the traditionalist knee-jerk response). In any case, when we consider how only fifty years ago celibacy was viewed as being absolutely integral to the identity and indeed the mystique of the priesthood, I think we can concede that the recent paedophile scandals have hardly helped restore prestige to an already-troubled institution. When the subject of priestly celibacy crops up in church circles today it is inevitably discussed as a problem.
If celibacy is the problem, what's the solution? I personally do not agree with a certain liberal line of argument which holds that allowing married men to become priests - and incidentally, this is the way that I think the issue should be framed, rather than in term of "allowing priests to marry" - would in itself solve the vocations crisis or necessarily result in a higher standard of pastoral care for our parishes.
This claim is routinely made, in spite of all the evidence to show that married men are just as capable as celibates of being selfish, impatient, bad-tempered, lazy etc. One need only look at the travails of the other churches to see that a married - let alone a female - clergy is no panacea for anything.
But neither do I agree with Catholic traditionalists who appear to believe that removing the celibacy requirement would be a catastrophic caving-in to secularism and a diminution of the priestly role.
No one is proposing that celibacy be outlawed. It would obviously continue to remain a vocational necessity for men and women entering religious life and embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. It would be essential for individuals called to communion with God by a special solitary path, like the growing number of hermits professed under Canons 603 and 604 of the Code of Canon Law. And - I would anticipate - it would continue to be embraced voluntarily by a large proportion of diocesan priests.
As has been stated elsewhere many times before, celibacy as applied to the life and ministry of priests is a matter of church discipline. It is not part of the indispensable content of Catholic faith; nor is it an essential aspect of the secular priest's calling. What is true, however, about celibacy, is that it has always been closely and naturally bound-up with the different forms of consecrated life, and especially the more solitary contemplative or mystical vocation. We might also bear in mind here the well-established traditions of celibate contemplative calling in other Christian churches and in the other world faiths.
My argument is that while the Catholic community as a whole should certainly treasure and promote this venerable tradition (i.e. celibacy as a facet of contemplative spirituality), the time has come to detach the celibate commitment from the life and ministry of diocesan priests. To my mind, it is a matter of recognising two distinct vocations: one, to consecrated life, especially to solitary mystical endeavour with celibacy as an integral part, and two, to priestly pastoral service. They may very well coincide in the case of particular individuals, and of course every priest's - every Christian's - life is supposed to contain a substantial contemplative and prayerful element - but they needn't actually coincide, and I think both would benefit from being viewed separately.
Perhaps I could attempt to support my argument with some brief remarks about how I understand celibacy, solitude, contemplation and the mystical life.
The spirituality of solitude
In its narrowest interpretation - which is that usually accorded by secular commentators - celibacy refers to the renunciation of sexual activity. But its real significance lies, I would argue, in a surrender of a lesser good (marriage, family, and, in the original sense, erotic relationships generally) for a greater (knowledge and experience of God, however this might be construed). Celibacy should be seen as one dimension - albeit a constitutive dimension - of a larger spirituality of solitude or "solitariness", which will always be freely and consciously chosen by the person to a greater or lesser degree.
There are, for example, a small number of men and women who do not feel the normal desire for an "other half", for an exclusive relationship with husband or wife, and for children. They are "contented loners" - often choosing, during childhood and adolescence, to spend long periods alone, and quite happy, as adults, to live alone and to be alone. They are not by any means necessarily self-absorbed and indifferent to the concerns of others. They may in fact value highly the friendship of a small number of people, and they may well have their own highly-developed sense of responsibility to, and connectedness with, the community at large, though not based on high levels of socialising.
Such character- or personality-types may not be remotely religious in outlook but we should not be surprised to discover that many men and women who become hermits or solitaries in the religious sense frequently conform to the above psychological description. For them celibacy is a natural part of a larger solitariness, a more general detachment from people and possessions in order to pursue what we might call an "aloneness with God". [1]
Soko Morinaga is a Buddhist monk and the rector of Hanazono University in Japan. He embarked upon the celibate monastic life as a young man with no regrets. "[A]s a Zen monk," he writes, "who has entered a monastic community in order to accomplish both personal religious practice and help for others, I feel that it was easier to do this without a family and the ensuing necessity to have personal property; so for me the choice of celibacy was a natural and joyful one...Although there may be desires such as sexual desires, this joy protects celibate life". [2]
Here we can see very clearly the natural connection between celibacy, solitude, material detachment and a mystical form of religious faith. The same pattern surely applies to Christian contemplatives and solitaries, and others, despite the obvious differences in belief.
Causes of Involuntary Solitude
But the select fellowship of individuals who are "contented loners" from birth is probably always going to be very small. At present in our society there is a far larger number of people who find themselves living alone through an unwelcome turn in circumstances rather than by temperament and by choice. Today's high incidence of relationship breakdown leaves many men and women alone, often in relative youth, with limited possibilities of finding another partner.
The truth is probably that in the field of relationships today a wide choice is always available for those who are prepared to lower their ideals sufficiently, although for many who cannot bear to live alone for long a series of short-lived relationships often turns out to be the only available option. There are many others however who have not by any means deliberately chosen a solitary lifestyle, but who nevertheless accept it as the lesser of two evils, and try to adapt to it, mustering their spiritual resources against the inevitable loneliness.
And again, in these circumstances - not of their own designing - many men and women actively choose to live celibately, on the grounds not only of moral principle but also (closely related to moral priorities in any case) out of a certain maturity and integrity, and out of self-respect and respect for others. If they are religious-minded they will naturally turn to God for support, and in the case of Christians in such circumstances, the Church must surely be a place of welcome and support. One thinks not only of the Association of Divorced and Separated, and various "Singles" initiatives, but also parish communities themselves, and groups like the third orders and secular associations which (in theory at least) offer the resources of particular spiritual traditions to laypeople and the friendship of other spiritually earnest men and women.
A third group which we should not neglect are those who are forced to remain single because of what we might call psychological disability, perhaps originating in some kind of emotional damage suffered in childhood. They may be chronically shy, or suffer from a deep sense of inferiority, and although at root they would like to find their ideal "other half" and marry and have children, they conclude relatively early in life that they are destined not to embark on such a relationship but to live alone. Unless they resemble Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf character, celibacy is also an integral part of the lives of these men and women.
My own belief is that just as some contented loners might naturally find themselves drawn either to the priesthood or to the contemplative life, so certain psychologically damaged individuals might accurately discern a religious vocation - a life of contemplative solitude or celibate pastoral ministry being a means of rendering their solitariness productive.
There is more to this than simply making a virtue out of necessity. Let us not forget the basic Christian truth that God's transforming grace builds on our corrupted human nature: not only is it possible for God to work effectively through a "damaged" personality, he has often shown a preference for doing so. Saints are never "normal", and as Saint Paul wrote, God tends to choose what the world considers foolish and weak to shame the wise and the strong; he chooses "common and unimportant people" who are often more receptive to his grace than those who are confident and successful.
When one reads some of the lists of qualities which modern laypeople demand from priests, for example, one wonders how they would react to a Moses, an Elijah, a Jeremiah, a John the Baptist, or a Saint Francis or a Saint Philip Neri. One may be perfectly integrated, psychologically and emotionally, and yet never progress beyond spiritual mediocrity. A single person who has to struggle against some emotional debility or psychological problem, on the other hand, may well exude great compassion and understanding, all the more so because at a deep interior level he or she accepts frailties and maladaptive attitudes which others have been spared.
Solitude and Service
In his book Living Alone the well-known Anglican priest and spiritual author Martin Israel addresses the different forms and aspects of what I have been calling "solitariness".
In his preface he states candidly that his book is dedicated to "those many people who, perhaps because of some physical impediment or social misfortune, are obliged to live alone". Recalling in some ways the remarks of Soko Morinaga about the two-sided nature of Zen monasticism - deepening of one's own faith and the altruistic effort to help others - Israel sets out to show his readers that "the life apart" can be spiritually fruitful only if it becomes a springboard to greater prayerfulness on the one hand, and selfless concern and service of other people on the other.
Aloneness first of all brings us up against our faults and fears and inner dereliction. But the self-knowledge gained through the experience of aloneness rids us of domineering motives towards other people and enables us to serve their real needs selflessly and patiently. Intercessory prayer for others manifests itself in practical service towards others.
"Service for others means bringing them into our family - in the case of the lone-dweller this is a family of one," writes Israel. "…The end of that service is the establishment of the divine community in the world. This community exists wherever we may find ourselves, and the apparently unpromising people around us are its hallowed members." [3]
Israel himself lives as a celibate and speaks from experience about a solitary life imposed by psychological disability. For instance, although a gifted academic before training for the priesthood, he suffered so badly from nerves and crippling self-consciousness that he could often only speak in a whisper, making his lectures a painful and humiliating ordeal. He accepts that his psychological make-up effectively bars him from intimate relationships - but not from a ministry of disinterested Christian service to others.
Solitude and the Pursuit of God
Fr. Roland Walls, a Catholic priest who became a hermit, has also written about the special vocation to solitude and how involuntary isolation can be turned to spiritual advantage. Describing a growing trend of which he himself is a part, Walls writes: "Men and women have found themselves lately responding to a call to be on their own, to be solitary. There's a growing number of them who are beginning to live lives of prayer, either in remote country places, or in the lonely deserts of our cities, in high-rise flats. There seems at the eleventh hour to be a call away from the activity and bustle of so much religion to the depths and mystery of God's discoverable presence." [4]
Priestly holiness
I hope that in what I have written above I have said enough show that my views cannot be interpreted as undervaluing the part played by celibacy in the spiritual lives of many men and women, and that my assessment is very far from that of the average secular misconstruals.
My conviction, rather, is that celibacy belongs properly in the context of lives dedicated to a solitary, contemplative search for God, and that thankfully there are numerous signs that this vocation is actually growing in the Church. Those who feel called to this way of life, as I remarked earlier, stand in a venerable tradition, and the Church should certainly welcome their appearance and foster their growth, because ultimately their solitary prayers and intercessions will renew the whole community.
Secular priests, on the other hand, are not necessarily contemplatives or natural solitaries. Indeed their life and ministry is orientated on principle towards active ministry and evangelisation. The diocesan priest, like every baptised believer, is certainly called to holiness, but we cannot conclude that the renunciation involved in the celibate commitment is a prerequisite of a distinctly priestly holiness.
To make a further distinction, I would not deny that there is a priestly spirituality distinct from that of the laity and ordered to the priest's particular quest for holiness. But celibacy is no more integral to this spirituality and this quest than, say, the evangelical vow of poverty - which secular priests of course do not make.
The priest's spirituality derives surely from his role as the man entrusted with stewardship of the sacred mysteries and with leadership of the communal liturgical worship. It derives from the nature of his shepherding role and the pastoral relationship which this places him in vis-à-vis the rest of the faithful. It does not in essence derive from his being single, which as I have tried to argue, entails another distinctive spirituality all of its own.
Conclusion
So in conclusion I would simply make the following remarks.
Catholic spirituality has always been characterised by (among other things) the principle of sacramentality. This inevitably requires a sacramental ministry - the priesthood. It may affront some elite groups to say it, but without the sacraments and their ministers we simply become another Protestant denomination - indeed, managerialism and the current mania for "lay ministries" has pushed us too far along that road already. I do not believe this is a price worth paying for the continued linkage of celibacy to priesthood.
At the same time, Catholic spirituality at its best has always been open to the mystical search for God and characterised by contemplative depth. The Church also needs mystics, as the late Karl Rahner reminded us - more than ever in times of spiritual confusion and crisis - and I believe that it is in the essential "solitariness" of the mystical vocation that celibacy finds its proper context. [5]
Except in relation to the ministers from other churches who convert to Catholicism and wish to continue in a pastoral role, Pope John Paul seems to have set his face against the idea of married men becoming priests. At the same time he has shown a far more positive attitude and a great desire to foster the different forms of consecrated life, and to encourage those who particularly feel called to eremiticism and consecrated virginity.
I would actually contend that recognizing and fostering two distinct vocations - solitary contemplation on the one hand, with its celibate dimension, and a married secular priesthood on the other - could actually be part of the "New Evangelization" which John Paul has repeatedly presented as the great task facing the whole Church at the start of the new millennium.
To permit married men to become priests would be a minor development in itself, one already anticipated by the appearance of married priests in the shape of the ex-Anglican clergy. But though a small measure in itself I think it would have enormous symbolic value: the slight opening of a window which would allow a faint, fresh breeze to circulate through the whole house.


Notes and References
[1] Cf. "Common to the Uncommon", a study of motivations among hermits and solitaries by Eugene Stockton, at www.op.org/ravensbread/. Volume 4, No. 1 February 2000.
[2] (2) "Celibacy: the view of a Zen Monk" by Soko Morinaga, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_zen_en.html. Morinaga also remarks "my way of being a Zen monk would have long ago come to a dead end if I had had to uphold by force a voluntary precept", I.e. abstinence from possessions, including celibacy. He adds later, concerning the Buddhist tradition of celibacy that "the life of a true religious person does not ban desire by inner will power or outer pressure" and that "[w]herever there is coercion to conform to such rules, be it from the inside or the outside, there is bound to be hypocrisy and transgression".
[3] Martin Israel, Living Alone, London SPCK 1982, p. ix and p. 110. Israel's earlier book Precarious Living is more autobiograpical, and contains more information about the development his own solitary nature.
[4] (4) "From Loneliness to Solitude" by Fr. Roland Walls. This appeared originally as part of a website dedicated to the eremitic life, but it seems to have since folded.
[5] (5) "…the devout Christian of the future will either be a 'mystic', one who has 'experienced' something, or [he/she] will cease to be anything at all." Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Volume 7, Further Theology of the Spiritual Life I (translated by David Bourke; London/New York: Darton, Longman and Todd/Herder and Herder, 1971)p.15.