Celibacy as an Asset in Ministering to Married Persons

Celibacy for the Kingdom of God might seem like an obstacle in relating to the struggles of married people, including but not limited to spousal conflicts, balancing home and work duties, managing multiple children, and dealing with in-laws and extended family members. Seminary formation offers many resources in the areas of homiletics, sacramental theology, and Church morality; however, there is no textbook or course that could prepare a future priest to understand what it might be like for parents whose infant or toddler wakes up multiple times at night, among other unique parental struggles. Rather than eschew celibacy as incompatible with ministering to married persons, I will highlight how the gift of celibacy can be an asset in ministering to those who are married.

I have spent a total of four and a half years in formation with two different religious orders and I have been married for five and a half years. While I am not an expert in either vocation, I believe my experience in both the celibate and the married vocations has given me a unique perspective to offer a bridge to the ostensible chasm between the two callings.

“I Know that I Don’t Know”

In Plato’s writings, Socrates often admits that he is not an expert of the subject being discussed, but comes from a place the he knows that he doesn’t know. Specifically in the Apology, he states, “I neither know nor think that I know.”1 Socratic dialogue utilizes a tabula rasa pretense to learn about a subject, “consisting of a series of questionings the object of which is to elicit a clear and consistent expression of something supposed to be implicitly known by all rational beings.”2 Taking this approach is most expedient when coupled with the virtue of humility.

Similarly, priests and celibate ministers can engage married couples from a place of humility, admitting they do not have direct knowledge of the struggles and challenges experienced by those who are married. Like Socrates, the celibate can approach the couple with curiosity, interest, and a desire to learn. Additionally, this Socratic approach might enable the married couple to feel empowered in this dialogue and speak from a place of being acknowledged and respected. The celibate demonstrates effective ministry by being the student and learning from the couple what their difficulties are. And by facilitating a dialogue in a Socratic fashion, the minister can aid the couple to find a solution that is both in line with Church teaching and pastorally sensitive to the couple’s situation.

When I was in seminary formation, I learned that the People of God serve as additional formators, and that priestly formation does not end at ordination. Utilizing this Socratic model to engage and minister to married persons provides the basis to grow in wisdom and discernment when working with married couples, along with applying a praxis that both empowers the couple and enables them to be seen and heard.

Rahner’s Insights on the Married Vocation

Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ offers, in my opinion as a married man, profound insights into married life from the perspective of a priest committed to celibacy. In “The Celibacy of a Secular Priest Today,” Rahner counsels a young priest and former student who expresses perplexities regarding the condition of celibacy embedded in his vocation. Rahner offers a sober and accurate perspective of the reality of the married vocation. “A happy marriage . . . is built on the foundation, never mentioned by either partner, of solitude and self-denial.”3 Thus, the seemingly polar opposite vocations have a deep commonality, which the celibate who mindfully lives one’s vocation has direct and intimate knowledge of.

The solitude and self-denial of the celibate is not a stumbling block but an asset in relating to a married couple. Just as a priest or religious learns early on that one’s life is not one’s own but belongs to the People of God and the community they serve, a married person’s life is no longer one’s own but belongs to the spouse as well as their child(ren).

While the specific forms of self-denial of a celibate do not mirror those of a married person, both vocations have this at its core as their respective witness to Christ. Much of the conflict with married persons stems from difficulties in self-denial, and in conjunction not finding the other person being aware of and attending to their needs as well as that of the family. The celibate then, not necessarily from a position of strength but of shared common struggle in the area of self-denial, can offer both solidarity and witness to the married couple of the difficulty and gift in this act of generosity. Facilitating a couple’s awareness of any blind spots in self-denial, along with accompanying them in growing in this important area, can literally save many marriages. I believe God equips the celibate for this paramount role precisely in the call to celibacy.

Having addressed the self-denial Rahner refers to, I will now elaborate on the celibate’s gift of solitude to the married couple, who also experience solitude in their vocation. The loneliness and longing of a celibate is not limited to the celibate. Many married persons can attest to how they can feel alone even with a house full of people and someone to share a bed with. The pervasiveness of social media also creates a false sense of intimacy with those who are distant, and acts as a buffer and a poor substitute for closeness to those who are physically near. This false sense of intimacy, like drinking seawater when thirsty, only exacerbates the thirst for love.

Again from a place of both solidarity and witness, the celibate can encourage the married partners to turn to one another anew and confront the loneliness and longing that each experiences. In doing so, the couple might be able to discern that the desire for connection is at their disposal with one another, and through supplementary aid from a trained professional, can find deeper intimacy and joy in married life.

Both of the features of celibate life that Rahner highlights — solitude and self-denial — call the celibate to minister to married people from a place of poverty and weakness. Rahner’s wisdom herein reminds the celibate that the grace to minister comes from God. A priest or religious who acknowledges one’s poverty of being allows one to be a malleable instrument of the Lord, for apart from him we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5). As Saint Paul teaches, God’s power is perfected in weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). Similar to the Socratic method, Rahner’s counsel calls the celibate to operate from a place of humility. In poverty and humility, priests and religious are God’s most efficacious witnesses.

Rahner’s letter also highlights that both the celibate and the married vocation require daily and dutiful faithfulness to one’s call.

“. . . taking paths along which one can never retrace one’s steps is part of the texture of life, and the splendid miracle of enthusiastic, uncovenanted freedom reaches its own fulfillment only in the sober guise of duty, faithfulness, and endurance unto the end. What one has received by grace must be won again and again by faithfulness . . . faithfulness worked out in sweat and tears.”4

The theologian calls attention to both the celibate and married vocation being a participation in the Christian witness of faithfully taking up one’s cross daily. Both require God’s grace for perseverance and strength, and therefore the celibate minister can offer both solidarity and witness to the married couple to turn to the Lord who makes living faithfully to one’s vocation possible. Priests and religious, from the depths of their celibacy, can teach and model faith in Christ that permits the celibate to say yes to one’s call each day. Celibate ministers often teach catechism and religious education, and to married persons these ministers can offer a praxis of the faith in loving God and one another by their commitment to their vows. The couple can receive a catechism of the faith that applies directly to their married joys and struggles, consolations and hardships, and teaches them to turn to Christ who is the source of their covenantal love.

Pointing to the Sacraments as Models for Married Couples

Words that married couples can live by in their dialogue with one another to promote a healthy relationship include, “I love you,” “I am sorry,” “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “Thank you.” These words are also the inherent messages of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

The celibate can point to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a model of how a married couple can become reconciled to one another. In addition to encouraging frequent use of the sacrament, the minister can connect for the married couple that their love deepens when they seek reconciliation. Married persons are called to love one another unconditionally, a manner of loving that is an example of the Divine Trinity. When spouses fall short in loving one another, they can imitate God who invites them to experience mercy when they have missed the mark. Married couples can also make space for each other to deepen their love and commitment to one another by expressing sorrow for wrong and seeking forgiveness. Additionally, the couple can also make time to share how the other might have hurt him or her, and offer the opportunity to dialogue around the hurt to foster understanding to prevent this action from recurring. Following the dialogue, the couple can share a moment of forgiveness. I believe if married partners include in their relationship their own ritual of repair and reconciliation, they will grow as a couple and reflect to one another the love that God has for them.

The Eucharist is a powerful sacrament of agape love and, as the name suggests, thanksgiving. The celibate minister can direct a married couple to the celebration of the Eucharist, not only for frequent reception of the sacrament, but to utilize this model as a celebration of love and gratitude in their marriage. The agape love of Christ is an example to draw from the self-denial inherent in the vocation of marriage. This image permits the couple to reframe the daily areas where each is called to deny oneself as a participation in their love for one another and the agape love of Christ. Self-denial then can be converted from resentment to acts of charity, thereby expanding the couple’s capacity to love one another. The Eucharistic love of Jesus can teach the couple to desire to offer acts of service to one another and to make both time and space for quality time.

In turn, the Eucharist also teaches the couple to be thankful for one another, to recognize all that the other person does, but to moreover express gratitude for who the person is. Recalling the earlier example of the impact of solitude in a marriage, the married couple can look to the Eucharist as a model of communion with one another, strengthening their relationship by countering the deep dark feeling of being alone in the marriage. Therefore, the Eucharist offers a model for a married couple on how to incorporate a ritual form to express gratitude for one another, deny oneself for the other, serve one another out of love, and foster connection and intimacy that counters loneliness and distance in the relationship.

The Gift of Availability

When I was considering religious life, I read many texts that framed celibacy as a vocation that promotes availability. Rather than focus on the loss of a spouse and children, the celibate can be available to minister to God’s people and to be sent to wherever work might be for God’s greater glory.

Celibacy is a gift when ministering to married couples. The priest or religious can give oneself in ministry in such a unique and countercultural way that he or she allows one’s heart to be a home for the married persons seeking ministry. There are few people that a married person can turn to that provide this level of availability. Other married persons are certainly helpful in one’s spiritual journey, but they too have their own spouse and family members to attend to. Thus, the celibate offers a distinctive witness to a married couple.

Connected with an available heart is an open ear. Married persons often desire to be seen and to be heard, especially from religious ministers. Priests and religious might actually be of tremendous help to married persons without saying much. Giving a married person or persons to space to express what they are holding deep within, whether these areas are hurt feelings, insecurities, struggles and grief, the celibate’s openness allows God to minister to this person or persons. Often there is much grace in naming aloud what one is holding deep within. Whether this is done in confession, spiritual direction or another ministry, celibacy enables the minister to be an instrument of God’s healing love by offering to married persons an available heart.

Contrary to the ostensible differences between the celibate and married vocation, a celibate minister — whether a priest or a religious — has much to offer married persons, not despite their commitment to celibacy, but rather because of their celibacy. This countercultural commitment provides a shared experience of solitude and self-denial, coupled with a call to daily faithfulness. From this disposition of weakness, poverty and humility, the celibate minister can offer both solidarity and witness to married persons. In counseling married people, the celibate can benefit from the Socratic method, admitting that they know that they don’t know the ins-and-outs of married life. This allows the married couple to be empowered to share freely their experience, a space aided by the availability offered in the celibate vocation. Lastly, the celibate can point to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist as models for the married couple to utilize to deepen their commitment to one another through the exercise of reconciliation, gratitude, and agape love.

  1. Plato, “Apology of Socrates,” 21.d. Selected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York, NY: Modern Library Press, 2001).
  2. Definition of “Socratic method;” Merriam-Webster: www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Socratic method.
  3. Karl Rahner, “The Celibacy of the Secular Priest Today,” The Furrow Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1968), p, 61. www.jstor.org/stable/27659581.
  4. Rahner, “Celibacy of the Secular Priest,” pp. 64-65.
Matthew Kappadakunnel About Matthew Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Rite. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder.