A common criticism of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual morality has to do with the largely unmarried clergy who are charged with preaching the message.  The accepted wisdom is that celibate males have no business telling married couples how to live their lives: “What do they know about the subject?”  

I remember a particularly egregious example. In 1974, Earl Butz, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, ridiculed Pope Paul VI’s opposition to contraception, He no playa the game, he no maka the rules.” He later apologized, but in reality he was only saying publicly what many, including many Catholics, were saying privately.

I’ve never understood this. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a celibate male. Why would any Christian assume that a man striving to emulate Christ in the flesh would have nothing to offer about the nature of love?

Christians agree that God is love.  What they don’t agree on is what should be derived from this fact.

I’ve taught natural family planning for almost twenty years and I consider one of the most important elements of this instruction to be what is conveyed about the nature of love. I always hesitate to use an adjective such as “true” to describe a noun such as “love.” It seems inadvertently to give status to any falsehood parading as truth. 

Love is what it is. Everything else is a pretender and should be described with its own noun. Love is not lust; love is not use; love is not convenience. Love is divine, with all that implies.

St. John Paul II’s pontificate emphasized church teaching about love and its incarnational aspects. From 1981 through 1984, he devoted a whole series of audiences to this subject, which he dubbed “The Theology of the Body.”  These talks were later gathered into a book and became the basis of serious theological reflections

Although continence for the sake of the Kingdom was an important aspect of this teaching, the theology on marriage seemed to get the most focus when it was disseminated and discussed.  Celibacy was initially given short shrift, which is unfortunate, because the fact of the matter is, if you don’t understand or appreciate continence for the sake of the Kingdom, you aren’t going to appreciate or understand the nature of the sacrament of marriage.

          Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Wojtyla, c.1967

A keystone of St. JPII’s teaching in this matter is found in Gaudium et Spes:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, that all may be one. . . as we are one (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of Gods sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. [24] 
This section refers the reader (in a footnote) to Luke 17:33, “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

The essence of love is a willingness to give a sincere gift of self. We only love when we act like God.  God the Son showed us what this means by giving such a complete gift of Self that He emptied Himself, as St. Paul tells us, going all the way to the cross. 

Our life of love is a continuum that starts here on earth and is fulfilled in Heaven.   The crucifixion was completed by the resurrection, when love conquered even death.   Celibacy for the kingdom is the eschatological symbol of love and it has much to teach those of us who are married.

In a 1981 audience, reflecting on Christ’s words about the resurrection of the body found in Mt. 22:30, St. JPII wrote:

The reciprocal gift of oneself to God – a gift in which man will concentrate and express all the energies of his own personal and at the same time psychosomatic subjectivity – will be the response to God’s gift of himself by man, a gift which will become completely and definitively beatifying, as a response worthy of a personal subject to God’s gift of Himself, “virginity,” or rather the virginal state of the body, will be totally manifested as the eschatological fulfillment of the “nuptial” meaning of the body, as the specific sign and the authentic expression of all personal subjectivity.  In this way, therefore, that eschatological situation in which “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” has its solid foundation in the future state of the personal subject, when, as a result of the vision of God “face to face,” there will be born in him a love of such depth and power of concentration on God Himself, as to completely absorb his whole psychosomatic subjectivity.

It is the mutual gift of self that is imaged in conjugal love.  Without denigrating the noble vocation of marriage, it can rightly be said that the couple undertaking marriage can find no better guide to understanding the essential nature of the gift of self than the celibate priest who has emptied himself in imitation of Christ. 

Let’s thank our priests for showing us this most radical example of self-gift.

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.