Ralph McInerny and the gift of celibacy
Parts of the Church have moved away from discussing celibacy as a “gift.”
Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian came out in 2014. It was the year before Obergefell. Same-sex relationships and marriage were being hotly debated both politically and religiously. I was working on what would become my Master’s essay on love, marriage, and friendship in the Catholic tradition. It sought to give a forward-looking account of love and desire, one that could create a positive space for same-sex love and desire, while still affirming the historic tradition of Catholicism on these questions.
Vines’s book was part of a different project. He sought to give a biblical account of love and desire which affirmed same-sex sex and marriage. A key question was how to deal with the role of celibacy in Christianity. For Vines and many others, celibacy was a good, but not a good required. Vines argued that the New Testament “makes clear that celibacy should be a voluntary choice, not an imposed requirement.” He drew on Matthew 19:10-12 and 1 Corinthians 7: 2-9 to emphasize that “celibacy could be accepted only by ‘those to whom it has been given’” and that it is better to get married and have sex than to remain unmarried and sin due to a “lack of self-control.” Vines concluded the section by writing, “There is wisdom in Paul’s words about celibacy. While it can be a life-giving path for some, many do not have that gift.”
When I first read Vines, I dismissed him. Next to one paragraph in that section, I wrote in the margin, “nope, this doesn’t necessarily follow.” But now, a few years later, I read Vines and think about Ralph McInerny.
Ralph McInerny is one of my Notre Dame heroes. He was a widely respected Thomist, director of the Medieval Institute and Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and a popular novelist (who wrote under several pseudonyms). I came to love McInerny while a student at Notre Dame because I knew of his unyielding adherence to Catholic orthodoxy, and his love of the Catholic intellectual tradition. As an aspiring Catholic philosopher and moderately depressed undergrad, I would occasionally visit his grave on campus and ask for his intercession. I now feel an ongoing connection to him, living in the Twin Cities where he grew up.
I never got to know him personally. David Solomon, one of my professors, had tried to initiate a connection during my freshman year, but McInerny died in the middle of it. But I found a kindred spirit in many ways while reading his memoir, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You. Unlike the memoir of his colleague Otto Bird (who founded the Great Books program at Notre Dame in 1950, just a few years before McInerny joined the faculty), McInerny’s didn’t intellectualize his life. He focused lovingly on his childhood, his family, and his Church. My love of his memoir continues today.
I especially loved reading about his idyllic childhood (he himself described his childhood as “a veritable idyll of happiness”). Though he wrote the memoir in the final years of his life, one can find in it the vivid memory of a man inclined towards art. He told the story of his “original sin,” losing his boots as a child while walking home in the mud and then accusing a boy from a family “not held in high repute” of having taken them. One can feel a romantic regret in his words:
“The memory of that lie and false accusation has never gone away. It is firmly embedded in the bottom stratum of my self, representing the day when I achieved what moralists call the Age of Reason and walked for the first time out of the garden of innocence.”
One can also discover a very different time in McInerny’s discussion of his seminary days in Saint Paul. In the 1940s, the seminary system included a high school called Nazareth Hall, which McInerny entered at the age of thirteen. He received a classical education and first started to see himself as a writer. After Nazareth Hall, McInerny attended the St. Paul Seminary.
But he realized that the priesthood was, ultimately, not for him:
“It was at the seminary that something like a moral schizophrenia set in. During my few years away from seminary life I had dated girls, gone to dances, got a kiss or two. As a seminarian I think I can say I was considered a success as a student… [O]ur spiritual director, gave us weekly conferences about our vocation… Needless to say, celibacy loomed large. Dating a girl was cause for immediate expulsion. As I had violated the smoking rule at Nazareth Hall, so, at the major seminary I courted disaster with girls. On vacation, Bob McDonald and I would go out on the town as we always had, and we usually ended up with two compliant blondes. Bob, a great wit, would mutter from the back seat from time to time, ‘Ralph, you shouldn’t be here.’… I suppose in a mild way I scandalized him, but we had lots of fun. It was when I was in Second Philosophy that it became clear to me that I was not meant for the priesthood. The prospect of a single life was too much for me.”
And that is the story of why he didn’t become a priest.
As a gay man who has somewhat been through the ringer when it comes to the Church, this is the part of McInerny’s story that really strikes me. I realize how casually McInerny was able to lay out the argument: I thought being a good Catholic meant celibacy, but I would fool around with that commitment, and I realized that singleness (i.e. celibacy) wasn’t for me. I now realize that McInerny gives the same narrative as Vines. It’s the same trajectory gay Christians travel on again and again. When Ralph tells the story, it’s a light anecdote to include in his Catholic memoir. But when we (gay Christians) tell the story, it’s hell.
Today, many “side a” Christians (Christians who affirm that God blesses same-sex sex and marriage) argue that celibacy is only for those who have been given the “gift of celibacy” by God. They argue that celibacy is not, and should not, be a state imposed upon someone. Instead, celibacy is a select calling and those with this calling will receive the grace from God to fulfill it. They argue that no one is “doomed” to celibacy simply because of a sexual orientation and, therefore, God blesses same-sex relationships, including sexual and marital relationships. They argue that celibacy is not some “default obligation,” but is rather a specific gift bestowed upon a chosen few. And if one has an especially difficult time with celibacy, then one likely does not possess this “gift.”
I had always assumed this argument was an invention of those who wanted to destroy the “traditional” vision of marriage and sexuality, a disposition foreign and hostile to Catholic orthodoxy. I dismissed this view of celibacy as “gift” and focused on the natural law arguments to which I had been exposed. Those argued, among other things, that the biological makeup of the human person reveals to us on its own that sexual desire and activity are for opposite-sex marriage and that, therefore, celibacy for those outside of this institution should be the clear and reasonable calling. I now realize that, regardless of what the new natural lawyers argued, this wasn’t quite the position of the Church.
The disposition held by Vines and McInerny, perhaps surprisingly, is actually quite close to the treatment of celibacy by the Holy See. In 1974, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education published “A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy.” The guidelines drew on the 1971 synodal document De sacerdotio ministeriali, which stated that “celibacy, as a gift from God, cannot be kept unless the candidate is properly prepared for it.” The Guide went on to argue:
“The problem of formation for a celibate life… cannot be resolved simply on the natural level, even with the best dispositions on the part of the candidates and the greatest care on the part of educators. Grace is a fundamental and necessary element in this formation—as sacred scripture emphatically states. (Ps. 126; Mk. 4, 26-29, 10, 27, Lk. 1, 37, Jn. 15, 5; 1 Cor. 3, 6, Gal. 5, 22-23; Phil. 4, 13). It is, moreover, equally essential to maintain the faithful observance of ‘the ascetical norms which have been tested by the experience of the church and which are by no means less necessary in today’s world.’”
The Guide argued that the demands of celibacy are significantly greater than those of the “ordinary faithful.” It stated: “Young [seminary] students must be convinced of the necessity of a very special asceticism in their lives, one that is far more demanding than what is required of the ordinary faithful and which is special to those aspiring to the priesthood.” Again and again, the Guide emphasized the celibacy is a particular calling that cannot be achieved by natural virtue alone. It continued:
“Celibacy transcends the natural order. It involves a total personal commitment. It cannot be maintained except with God’s grace… Celibacy is an offering, an oblation, a real and true sacrifice publicly given, not merely the giving up of the sacrament of marriage, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. ‘The seminarian must understand this form of life not as something imposed from without, but rather as an expression of his own free giving, which, in turn, is accepted and ratified by the church in the person of the bishop.’
Celibate chastity is not some kind of taxation that has to be paid to the Lord, but rather a gift that one receives from his mercy. A person entering this state of life must not see himself so much taking on a burden as rather receiving a liberating grace.”
That was the Church’s argument for and exhortation to celibacy for priests and seminarians in the early 1970s. At the time, the Church was responding to calls to end the celibacy requirement for priests, and so these arguments were intended to clarify the Church’s longstanding position on these questions and to give a vision for moving forward in a culture increasingly seen as hostile to the Church’s ideals.
In the intervening years, however, parts of the Church have moved away from discussing celibacy as a “gift” given by God and nearly impossible outside of the workings of divine grace. Instead, many Catholic leaders have moved towards discussing celibacy as an expectation based on a secular treatment of the natural law. Throughout my teen years and early twenties, I had been conditioned to roll my eyes when “side a” Christians talked about how celibacy was only for those who had been given it as a gift by God. I took that version of “natural law” to indicate that, if people just understood rightly, then they would recognize that celibacy can and should be achieved for those who could not marry to someone of the opposite sex. I now wonder whether these rhetorical moves, rather than developing out of the Catholic tradition, were actually arguments sloppily invented to silence LGBTQ+ Christians as they sought to make sense of their desires and relationships. And the rhetorical move ended up being something that would turn McInerny into a disgrace and the Congregation for Catholic Education Guide into a suspect work.
I’m at a place where I deeply admire McInerny, and I want to integrate with the tradition of the Church. So I now have to recognize that Vines is on to something.