Dear Father, Stop Whining
I’ve been reading about your plight in the New York Times. So let’s go ahead and clear something up right now: Most Catholics don’t give a rip who it is you’re not having sex with.
We know that abstinence is hard. Those of us practicing NFP probably don’t have a ton of sympathy for you, because at least you aren’t obliged to spend all night lying in bed next to the person you’re not having sex with, but when we can get over ourselves, sure, we get it. Boy do we get it: Abstinence is hard.
Also, when you took your vows, the whole “celibacy” thing wasn’t exactly foisted on you by surprise. That’s kinda been around for a while.
Sooo . . . I’m sorry you had a difficult childhood. I’m sorry your seminary sucked, and your bishop sucks, and I’m especially sorry that priests who want to be faithful to their vows get shafted.
That’s not right.
But I have good news for you: There are other Catholics who want to be faithful to our vows — whether that be the vows of ordination, or marriage, or baptism, we’re all in this together. We’ve all made the commitment to do our best to order our actions to our state in life, and no you are not the only one who faces fierce temptations to act on urges that are not consistent with our human dignity.
So if you want support in keeping your vows, we’re out here.
Those of us doing the Catholic thing know very well what it’s like to wrestle with temptation. Honestly we don’t give a crap about your tormented coming-out story, because we know it’s a distraction. Satan wants to keep you constantly looking inward, gazing at your story of shame and pity, because then you’ll forget that shame and pity aren’t the end of your story. You’ll forget the whole reason you’re Catholic: Because you are much more than the sum of your sins.
You are made for eternal glory. God who loves you wants you in Heaven forever with Him, and so do all sane men.
I agree. There are lots of lay Christian men and women — Catholic and otherwise — who are living celibate lives out of obedience to Christ. These are men and women who aren’t married yet, or who aren’t married anymore. They would love to have sexual partners, but they know that as Christians, they cannot be with anyone sexually outside of marriage.
You want to know what’s difficult? Being a single man in your 20s, living in a big city, freshly converted to Catholicism, and committed to walking the path of chastity. That was me in 1992. I knew only two or three others who were on the same path. Everything about the broader culture told me I was an idiot and a loser for living this way. But I knew the Egypt from which I had been delivered, and I wasn’t going back there. The only way forward was … forward. I did not know if I would ever marry, but I did know that obedience was the minimal standard. Dying to oneself was the normal Christian path through life. Maybe American Christianity doesn’t say so, but the Catholic Church, of which I was a new communicant, said so, and the Holy Bible, a foundation of my faith, said so. The authority of a 2,000 year tradition said so.
I had previously chosen to go my own way, and nearly ruined my life and somebody else’s. I could always walk away from Catholicism if I wanted to. If this was a “cage,” then the lock opened to the inside. My experience, though, was that the cage was what I had left behind to become Catholic. Time to suck it up. Nobody wanted to hear my whining.
I thought that if I ever get married, I’ll have crossed the finish line, and this whole sex problem will be solved. Nope. As faithful Catholics, we followed Natural Family Planning. As Jennifer Fitz said, maintaining abstinence under those conditions is really difficult. It involves dying to yourself in a new way. You do it because you want Christ more than you want yourself.
I’ve been married for 21 years. Most of my Christian friends have been married for a long time too. We laugh at the thoughts we had about how easy life would be when you were married, and could have all the sex you wanted. When I was a single man, I thought constantly about how lonely I was, and how hard this path was to walk by myself. The thing is, once you marry, the path gets easier in some ways, but harder in others. Dying to self is a lifelong challenge. There’s a reason Dante’s metaphor for life is a long, winding pilgrimage up a mountain. Asceticism and renunciation is key to the Christian life. If you have an understanding of Christianity that does not involve some meaningful form of asceticism, then I’m sorry, but you have been deceived.
I have at least two Christian friends struggling mightily in their marriages. Sex — or the lack thereof — is one of the big reasons. One, a conservative, said to me last year, “Every one of the conservative Christian friends I had back when I first got married is struggling now. We all believed that if we did the right thing, if we waited till marriage, and stayed faithful within marriage, then our marriages would be happy. This is a hard thing to deal with.”
The pain that these men share with me — my God. As a single Christian, I wouldn’t have been able to have imagined this. Now, as a married person of a certain vintage, I can certainly imagine it, and so can every married person reading this blog. The question is now whether or not your life — married or single — will have suffering; the questions are what form it will take, and how you react to it. Staying faithful to one’s vows — baptismal vows, confirmation vows, ordination vows, marriage vows, what have you — can be quite painful. Nobody said that carrying a cross would be easy, only that we wouldn’t have to carry it alone.
This poem by Frederick Turner, which appears in the new issue of Modern Age, bucked me up in the face of the challenges I’m facing in my own life now (and we all have them). Here’s how it begins:
Ride this one out, as you have done before.
Batten down what can be battened. Reef
What can be reefed, avoid the white sea-shore,
Do not expect a rescue or relief.
Endurance is its own kind of relief.
The other ships are sinking. You must be
Hope’s light for them, the north star of belief,
Time’s substitute for lost eternity.
The other ships are sinking, Father. You must be Hope’s light for them. So must I. So must we all. We all made vows. We were all promised nothing but the Cross. This is a hard saying.