Celibacy as Charism

Donald Cozzens

Charism, n. a gift freely given by God to a person or community, for the good and service of others in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

“When I run,” said British Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell, “I feel God’s pleasure.” Liddell, played by Ian Charleson in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, acknowledged with these simple words that his world-class athletic skill was fundamentally God’s gift.1

While it isn’t clear that he thought of his exceptional speed as directly contributing to the building up of the Kingdom of God, Liddell rightly understood that his intention to use his giftedness for the glory of God made his running somehow sacred. And he felt the presence of God, felt God’s very pleasure. There is an implicit act of humility in this insight. This is no vain boast on Liddell’s part but a declaration that he has been gifted, and using his gift with the right intentionality, in itself, pleased God. Not to run, not to compete, was unthinkable. Unused gifts, the missionary Liddell knew from his theological studies, frustrate the divine plan and, to a greater or lesser degree, shrink the human soul.

Since believers commonly hold that grace builds on nature, they understand a charism as building on a natural aptitude for a specific behavior or way of life. In theory, at least, monks possess an aptitude for monastic life, married people for family life and parenthood, teachers for developing the art of questioning, scientists for research. It is only a small stretch to concede that calls to monasticism, parenthood, teaching, research, writing, and other vocations are rightly understood, from a theological perspective, as charisms—as gifts from the divinity for the welfare of society for the personal fulfillment of the one gifted, and for the glory of God. Temperament, personality, intellectual bent, kinetic ability, and genetic predisposition all coalesce in the emerging charism. Charisms, therefore, are grace abilities grounded in natural gifts and human potential ordained for the common good, for the building of the Kingdom of God. Moreover, they shape the destiny of the recipient. His or her spiritual and personal development remains intimately linked to how one respects, develops, and responds to the gifts bestowed.

Like Eric Liddell, at least from time to time, the exercise of God-given gifts and talents humbles the human actor who finds aptitudes and abilities embedded in his or her body/spirit. Preachers blessed with the charism of preaching experience the same mysterious, uncanny awareness of “God’s pleasure” when they preach. Not always, of course, but sometimes. The same can be said of teachers, artists, administrators, counselors, and pastors, to name some of the more obvious gifts of the Spirit given for the common good and the building up of the reign of God. The same, we might add, can be said of any human activity—work, play, service, prayer—done with awareness, mindfulness, and reverent attention. For the believer, life itself is the fundamental charism to be “used” for the glory of God and the welfare of society. At different times individuals of all ages, temperaments, and dispositions may sense that their very living gives God pleasure.

Possessing a charism, a gifted predisposition for outstanding achievement or performance, does not mean that the exercise of the gift is effortless. Liddell trained strenuously to bring himself to the point of optimal conditioning for his 1924 Olympic races. Charismatic preachers study scripture and theology, literature, and the arts in general, in order to proclaim God’s liberating and transforming word to contemporary ears. Gifted teachers prepare long and hard to capture the attention and imagination of their students. Musicians and actors rehearse untold hours to hone and develop their talents and skills. Charisms are anything but a free pass from the discipline and toil of preparation and practice. They remain, however, the foundations of graced ministry, performance, and achievement.

Some few men and women appear to possess the charism of celibacy, a graced call from God to pledge themselves to celibate living for the good of others and for the building up in history of the reign of God. For these individuals, celibacy is their truth—the right way for them to live out their lives. Without disparaging marriage and with regard for the goodness and wholesomeness of human sexuality, they sense a mysterious pull of grace toward singleness that seems to fit with their inner life and spiritual journey. It is mysterious because it often makes no sense even to themselves, let alone to their family and friends. It is a pull—like being drawn by a magnet—because it is not necessarily, at least in the beginning of their discernment, their choice. As the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx once said of the celibate: he or she has an existential inability to do otherwise. Celibates sense, moreover, that herein lies the key to their spiritual freedom; and that fidelity to this mysterious, perplexing gift is all-important. Intuitively, they sense that their gift of celibacy is linked to the mission of building up the Kingdom of God. Charisms, by their nature, are not given for the fulfillment of the individual alone but for the welfare and betterment of others—for the sake of the gospel.

Consider that roughly half of the world’s population is unmarried. Widows and widowers, the divorced and separated, adults whose circumstances have precluded marriage find themselves living outside of marriage. Some, disillusioned with marriage or tired of the stress and tensions of dating, proclaim themselves, more or less seriously, “celibates.”2 Celibacy, as discussed here, is, of course, much more than not being married. It is the decision, I have emphasized, to live out one’s life without spouse for the greater good of the gospel. For the person who has received this charism, it is the best way, if not the only way, to live out his or her life. As commonly understood, the charism of celibacy implies sexual continence, the forgoing of all deliberate sexual experience. In most cases, there is a public, social dimension to recognized celibacy such as public vows or ordination to the priesthood in the Latin rite. While it is true that true holiness is evident in the ordinary lives of countless single men and women, they are seldom acknowledged as celibates by the larger community of believers. Charisms, however, refuse to be strictly delineated. Dorothy Day, by way of example, the heroic social activist, pacifist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker, lived a devout, celibate life, bearing extraordinary witness to gospel values following her conversion to Catholicism. Many would hold that Day’s celibacy was charismatic.

Gifts, understood in the religious sense of charism, are seldom realized or claimed beyond all doubt. When they are claimed by individuals, the assertion itself creates doubt. It seems more in harmony with the working of grace that one believes he or she has received the charism. More often than not, the charism is confirmed by the faith community as a gift to the church for the mission of the church. In the case of celibacy, I have heard priests say that they have come to believe that their “truth” is celibacy. But this understanding often comes after many years of pastoring and well into the autumn of their lives. These men understand that the gift of celibacy does not mean that sexual abstinence is easy, without struggle or temptations, without loneliness. Nor does the charism of celibacy mean that they never long for the companionship of marriage, for children, for the warmth of family life. Charismatic celibates have come to believe that the mystery of grace has called them to lead lives of celibate chastity for the sake of the reign of God. This belief goes hand in hand with doubt. But the belief holds.

Because we are discussing here the mystery of grace, charismatic celibacy as described above is a little too facile. The “charism of celibacy” remains a construct. It is a human attempt to understand an apparent divine design that prompts and allows red-blooded men and women to lead healthy, full lives without the support and consolation of a husband or wife. A number of questions arise.

Are charisms in general, and the charism of celibacy in particular, necessarily permanent gifts? Can an individual be called to celibate living for a specific period of time? Can the gift of celibacy die a natural death? Can a priest grow into authentic celibate living who first embraced it for less than healthy reasons—for example, fear of mature, sexual intimacy or fear of the commitment entailed in marriage? Many if not most priests, I have come to think, are reluctant to claim the charism of celibacy—even when they have led authentic celibate lives that have deepened their humanity and enhanced their preaching and pastoral ministry. A fundamental ambiguity remains. Many say they would marry if given the freedom to do so. Others, often depending on their age, think not. Still others would not even consider the option to marry. A large number of priests, I suspect, would say they’re not sure, that they need to pray about it, to test the idea with friends and spiritual guides. While many priests may hesitate to either claim or disclaim the charism of celibacy, most would claim the charism of priesthood. Priesthood, they believe, is their truth, their calling. What is less clear is the rightness, the fit of their celibate state.

Bishop John Crowley of the diocese of Middlesbrough in the United Kingdom addressed the deep tension priests experience when they feel called to both priesthood and marriage. On the occasion of his fortieth anniversary of ordination, he expressed the personal hope that within his lifetime “the Church might more generally allow married priests.” Crowley is right to say “more generally,” because there are hundreds if not thousands of married Latin rite priests who, upon converting to Catholicism from ministerial roles in Anglican and Protestant denominations, have been dispensed from the law of celibacy. Writing in The Tablet, Crowley offered the following reflection on his life as a celibate.

I would want to sing my song in favor of celibacy as one blessed route to living priesthood. How could I do otherwise when, having just clocked up forty years as a celibate priest, I personally have found it such a grace from God? Like any other celibate, I could tell of the times when that call from God has seemed to cost not less than everything. No need to expatiate on the seasons of struggle, the sometimes profound aching within, when the human heart feels all the God-given drive toward the most intimate union with one other. That is how we are gloriously made, and there is no need to labor that side of the celibacy challenge.

Rather, let me labor a little the other side of the celibacy opportunity. For me, and for countless others, it has offered deep down a possibility of that kind of relationship with the person of Jesus as friend and brother, which is life giving, joyous, and potentially—transforming. Read that last sentence by the way within the real context that (and this I imagine is also true within a good marriage) you simply get on with the day-to-day routine of being faithful in word and deed to the other.3

As Crowley proposes, there are countless priests who have learned how to make celibacy “work.” Through struggle, prayer, and commitment, and through grace-filled, life-giving friendships with both men and women, they have deepened their humanity and their effectiveness as bearers of the Word.

While there is indeed a mystique to celibacy, there are characteristics commonly found in the lives of healthy celibates well into their senior years. While these qualities are present to healthy, altruistic individuals of every age and walk of life they are the markers of authentic charismatic celibacy. Let me to tell you of an elderly woman who embodied many of these characteristics. While teaching at Ursuline College in Cleveland during the 1980s, I had the good fortune to meet an Ursuline nun by the name of Kilian Hufgard. She graciously agreed to tutor me in the history and theory of art and architecture from the perspective of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great inspiration of her life. Almost a generation older than I, Sister Kilian spoke quietly—but with undeniable passion—about things well made, about the transcendent quality of that which is good, about the dynamics and mystery of human creativity. She was, I believe, the most fascinating woman I have ever met. There was no doubt in my mind that she possessed not only the heart and soul of an artist and scholar but also the gift of celibacy. I believe what defined her life as a vowed religious and celibate is characteristic of charismatic celibates in general.

Sr. Kilian demonstrated a freedom of soul, an at-homeness, an at-easeness, that put others at ease in her company. She was a woman at peace with herself. Like healthy, integrated celibates, she welcomed others without judgment and those who came into the circle of her presence were touched by the ease and peace she radiated. Keenly aware of the fundamental goodness of creation and things well made, Sr. Kilian radiated a consistent spirit of reverence. She was alert to the divine spark present in all manifestations of reality, especially in the most humble of creatures. Most charismatic celibates display a similar reverence in their human interactions and in their approach to nature and the created world.

Charismatic celibates exhibit a spirit of gratitude. Like Dorothy Day and Sr. Kilian, they sense the hidden drama of grace unfolding in both the ordinary moments of life as well as the more critical, life-shaping events that mark our lives. With Bernanos’s country priest, they understand that “all is grace.” Building upon this insight, they see blessing upon blessing. Because celibacy itself is perceived as a blessing, they are seldom tempted to self-pity. When their solitude gives way to unmitigated loneliness, when they long for the companionship of their dearest, distant friends, when their celibacy makes no sense whatever, they trust that their darkness of soul will pass. With believers everywhere, with married, single, and separated, they see that indeed “all is grace.”

Sr. Kilian greeted her visitors with unconditional hospitality. In her presence, one felt truly welcomed—sincerely, warmly welcomed. A visit with her, no matter how brief, left me with the feeling that I had just been blessed. In her final years, Dorothy Day left her visitors with the same sense of blessing. Paul Elie, in his acclaimed The Life You Save May Be Your Own, captured this arresting presence, “Now she was a holy person, who inspired others to come to see her, to be in her presence, to enjoy the favor it bestowed, and to recall the encounter precisely.”4 Without the leveling potential inherent in marriage, celibates may easily become self-absorbed and more or less taken with their special status. Whenever this is the case, their ability to extend hospitality is diminished.

Healthy, charismatic celibates, like Hufgard and Day, resist this tendency. Their own centeredness, the result of their unwavering integrity and radical commitment, make them masters of graced hospitality.

Finally, if we look closely, many of the celibates we may know turn out to be some of the most passionate people we know. They are far from the asexual, other-worldly, slightly weird individuals portrayed in film and television sitcoms. Their passion, uncluttered by the simplicity of their lives and filtered through the strain of contemplative aware- ness, unmasks a thirst for life in its fullness. They have come to know the truest, deepest longings of their hearts. And so freed from the created, false thirsts of superficial culture, their great frustration is with all that is unreal. When I have been in their presence, I imagine a bumper sticker that reads: “Celibates make the best lovers.” 

Certainly these characteristics are found wherever individuals, regardless of their celibate or married status, endeavor to live lives of integrity and genuine concern for others. They remain, I believe, signs that a publicly committed celibate man or woman may indeed be the recipient of what the church deems the charism of celibacy. We have had a glimpse into the lives of two healthy, life-giving celibates, Ursuline Sister Kilian Hufgard, and the social activist and writer Dorothy Day. Each woman, beyond their noteworthy and exceptional accomplishments, is perceived as thoroughly real. Though no longer among the living, their stories ring true. Most believers, I suspect, know of celibate men and women who have touched their lives in meaningful ways, sometimes in profound ways. Wherever and whenever we encounter such individuals, the value and blessing of celibacy is vindicated and strengthened. True celibates remind us of what really matters, or what matters most in life. They remind us of the mysterious ways of grace—that different paths may be equally valid choices in living out one’s fidelity to the gospel; that what appears to be unhealthy self-abnegation in the eyes of many might indeed be one’s liberating truth. Healthy, charismatic celibates will be some of the most spiritually liberated people we will ever meet. For these believers, celibacy is indeed freeing.


1. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” Eric Liddell, played by Ian Charleson in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

2. A beer advertisement in the June 2005 Vogue magazine proposed carrying a membership card that reads, “Celibacy United, Member in Good Standing.” Beneath the signature line was the following: “I pledge to remain celibate for the rest of my life, content with the joy of good friends and fine conversation.” The ad’s copy: “Can we make your night out better? Sure. If the guys don’t see that you want to be left alone, let them see this [the clipped-out membership card]. It’ll douse their flame real fast. In fact, the only thing colder is that Bud Light in front of you.” Both clever and cynical, the ad is nevertheless telling. Freed from the undercurrent of sexual politics, celibate friends make for good company. They are no strangers to “the joy of good friends and fine conversation.”

3. John Crowley, “The Gift of Married Priests, The Tablet, July 2, 2005.

4 Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 444. 

Donald Cozzens, a Roman Catholic priest and writer, is author of three award-winning and best-selling books, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, and Faith That Dares to Speak. Formerly the president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at Saint Mary Seminary in Cleveland, he currently serves as writer-in-residence at John Carroll University, where he teaches in the religious studies department.This essay is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Freeing Celibacy, which will be published in spring 2006.