The Freedom of the Gift: Priestly Celibacy and Authentic Sexual Liberation 

(This paper was delivered at the Institute for Priestly Formation 6th Annual Symposium held at St. Vincent DePaul Seminary, FL March 16 2007.)

Many people believe that those who choose to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven condemn themselves to a life of hopeless sexual repression. In this paper I will seek to demonstrate that celibacy for the kingdom – and, for our purposes, we are dealing primarily with priestly celibacy – when accepted according to the invitation of Christ can only be properly understood and lived as a path of authentic sexual liberation.
Our world talks a big line about sexual liberation or sexual “freedom.” By this the culture means license to indulge one’s sexual compulsions without hindrance. Is this freedom? If one cannot say no to his sexual compulsions, is he free? Is an alcoholic who cannot say no to his urge to drink free? Authentic sexual liberation is not the freedom to indulge one’s compulsions. Rather, it is freedom from the compulsion to indulge. Only to the degree that a person is free from the tyranny of lustful impulses is he capable of being a true gift to others. Man is not an animal ruled by instinct. He is a rational animal who, to live in accord with his own dignity, must act freely. John Paul II observed that the “application of the concept of ‘sexual instinct’ to man... greatly limits and in some sense ‘diminishes’ what... masculinity-femininity is in the personal dimension of human subjectivity.... To express [human sexuality] appropriately and adequately, one must also use an analysis different from the naturalistic one. ...The truth about the spousal meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity, deduced from the first chapters of Genesis...seems to be...the only appropriate and adequate concept.”2
In this paper, with the help of John Paul II’s theology of the body (TOB), I will explore how the concept of the “spousal meaning of the body” leads to an authentic understanding of sexual freedom – the freedom, that is, to be a gift to others, whether in marriage or in a celibate gift of self for “the sake of the kingdom.” As John Paul II affirmed, “At the basis of Christ’s call to continence [for the kingdom] there stands... the awareness of the freedom of the gift, which is organically connected with the deep and mature consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body.”3 This key text will form the foundation of my argument.

What is the Theology of the Body?

“Theology of the body” is the working title which John Paul II gave to the first major teaching project of his pontificate – a collection of 129 Wednesday audience addresses offering an in-depth biblical reflection on the meaning of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns our creation as male and female. The TOB is most often cast as an extended catechesis on marriage and sexual love. It certainly is that, but it is also much more. Through the mystery of the incarnate person and the biblical analogy of spousal love, John Paul II’s catechesis illumines the entirety of God’s plan for human life from origin to eschaton with a splendid supernatural light. The TOB is not only a response to the sexual revolution, it is a response to the Enlightenment. It is a response to modern rationalism, Cartesian dualism, “spiritualism,” and all the dis-embodied anthropologies infecting the modern world. In short, the TOB is one of the Catholic Church’s most critical efforts in modern times to help the world become more “conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation”4 – and, through that, to become conscious of the humanum, of the very purpose and meaning of human life.5
The invisible God has revealed his mystery through the Word made flesh – theology of the body. This phrase is not only the title of John Paul II’s catechesis. It represents the very “logic” of Christianity. In its course, John Paul II’s catechesis on the body plunges us head first into “the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ.”6 The TOB, then, is nothing but an extended proclamation of and commentary on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the Incarnate Word – the “Gospel of the body.”
“The richest source for knowledge of the body is the Word made flesh.”7 Thus, from start to finish, John Paul’s catechesis calls us to encounter the living, Incarnate Christ and to ponder how his body reveals the meaning of our bodies. Vatican II put it succinctly: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of him who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”8 The TOB is nothing but an extended commentary on this fundamental truth: Christ fully reveals man to himself through the revelation – in his body – of the mystery of the Father and his love.
This is the meaning of the body revealed by Christ: it is meant to express divine love. “On the basis of this meaning, [Christ allows] us to understand and bring about the mature freedom of the gift, which expresses itself in one way in indissoluble marriage and in another by abstaining from marriage for the kingdom of God. In these different ways, Christ ‘fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear.’”9

The Great Spousal Analogy

Scripture uses many images to describe the mystery of God’s relationship with humanity: father and son, bridegroom and bride, king and subjects, shepherd and sheep, vine and branches, head and body. Christ even compares himself to a mother hen caring for his chicks. Each of these images has value. But one stands out among the others. One has influenced the whole history of Christian thought like no other. This image, in fact, is not merely an image, but a sacrament which efficaciously communicates the mystery it signifies: the relationship of bridegroom and bride.10 The Scriptures employ this image more than any other. The greatest mystics also favor it. John Paul, deeply imbued with Carmelite mysticism, shares this same preference. In keeping with the Carmelite tradition, John Paul uses the “great spousal analogy” as a lens through which to view the entirety of God’s plan of salvation.11
We can observe that from beginning to end, the Bible tells a story about marriage.12 It begins with the creation of man and woman and their call to become “one flesh.” Throughout the Old Testament the prophets speak of God’s love for his people as the love of a husband for his bride. The Song of Songs – that great biblical ode to erotic love at the pinnacle of the Old Testament – has given countless saints a language for describing their own mystical experiences of union with God. In the New Testament, Christ literally embodies the love of the eternal Bridegroom, becoming “one flesh” with all humanity through the Incarnation. Skip to the end of the Bible and the book of Revelation describes heaven as the Marriage of the Lamb.
The whole of biblical revelation unfolds between the marriage of the first Adam and Eve and the marriage of the final Adam and Eve, Christ and the Church. In turn, spousal theology looks to these nuptial “book ends” as a key for interpreting all that lies between. From this perspective we see that God’s mysterious and eternal plan is to espouse us to himself forever (see Hos 2:19)—to “marry” us. Respecting our freedom, the heavenly Bridegroom proposes this marital plan and awaits our fiat.
One of the critical illuminations of the TOB is that this eternal “marital plan” is not “out there” somewhere. It could not be any closer to us. It is right here, mysteriously recapitulated in our very being as male and female. The Gospel mystery is inscribed sacramentally in the theology of our bodies: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31–32). This is the key scriptural text for understanding the body theologically. Here we see how the body, and the spousal union of bodies, communicates profound spiritual and divine mysteries. As John Paul II affirmed: “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”13 This is the thesis statement of the TOB, the brush with which John Paul paints his entire catechesis.

The Spousal Meaning of the Body

The experience of nakedness without shame in Genesis 2:25 “allows us to speak of revelation together with the discovery of the ‘spousal’ meaning of the body in the mystery of creation.”14 The spousal meaning of the body is one of the most important and synoptic concepts of the Pope’s entire TOB. But it is not simply a “concept” or intellectual idea. The spousal meaning of the body speaks of man and woman’s conscious experience of their bodies as a gift and sign of God’s love – and, in turn, their sharing this Love with one another in and through their bodies, their masculinity and femininity.
This incarnate concept of love points to the original integration and harmony of the interior and exterior dimensions of the human person. Man experiences his call to love from within. But the spousal meaning of the body also confirms this exteriorly precisely because man is a unity of body and soul. Based on this anthropological truth of body-soul integration, speaking of the human person means simultaneously speaking of the human body and sexuality. “This simultaneity is essential,” the Pope says. For “if we dealt with sex without the person”—and we could also say if we dealt with the person without sex—“this would destroy the whole adequacy of the anthropology that we find in Genesis.”15
The whole truth of the body and of sex, John Paul affirms, “is the simple and pure truth of communion between persons.”16 This communion is established through an integrated, incarnate love. Hence, John Paul defines the spousal meaning of the body as the body’s “power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.”17 Here John Paul echoes that key text from the Second Vatican Council: “It follows then, that if man is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”18 John Paul demonstrates that this teaching of the Council is rooted not only in the spiritual aspect of man’s nature, but also in his body, in the complementary difference of the sexes and their call to become “one flesh.”
Of course, this does not mean that everyone is called to marriage. Nor could it possibly mean that sexual union is required in order to understand and live the meaning of life. It does mean, however, that we are all called to some expression of “spousal love” – to an incarnate self-giving. Everyone, regardless of earthly vocation, finds the ultimate fulfillment of the spousal meaning of the body in the “Marriage of the Lamb,” that is, in union with Christ. And everyone’s journey toward this heavenly reality, regardless of earthly vocation, passes by way of the experience of sexual embodiment.
The Church recognizes two ways of living this vocation to love in its fullness – marriage or celibacy for the kingdom.19 Both vocations flow from the basic disposition of the human person towards communion revealed in the spousal meaning of the body. As John Paul states in his TOB: “On the basis of the same disposition of the personal subject and on the basis of the same spousal meaning of being, as a body, male and female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life (see Mt 19:3-9), but there can be formed also the love that commits man for his whole life to continence ‘for the kingdom of heaven’ (see Mt 19:11-12).”20
Christian celibacy, therefore, must never be understood as a rejection of God’s plan for sexuality. Rather, it is a sign of the ultimate purpose and meaning of human sexuality – the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). The celibate person skips the sacrament of Christ’s union with the Church (the marriage of Genesis) in order to devote himself entirely to the reality of Christ’s union with the Church (the marriage of the book of Revelation). As John Paul expressed it, “Continence ‘for’ the kingdom... is a charismatic sign... [that] points out the eschatological ‘virginity’ of the risen man, in which... the absolute and eternal spousal meaning of the glorified body will be revealed in union with God himself.”21
John Paul insists that the call to voluntary celibacy only finds its proper motivation in relation to the spousal meaning of masculinity and femininity. If someone where to choose celibacy based on a fear or rejection of the true wealth of sexuality, it would not correspond to Christ’s invitation.22 The spousal meaning of the body “constitutes the fundamental component of human existence in the world.”23 Hence, we cannot reject or forego the spousal meaning of our bodies without doing violence to our humanity. John Paul II observed in Pastores Dabo Vobis that celibacy for the kingdom “makes evident, even in the renunciation of marriage, the ‘spousal meaning’ of the body through...a personal gift to Jesus Christ and his Church which prefigures the perfect and final communion of self-giving of the world to come.... [It prefigures] also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church.”24
By virtue of the spousal meaning of his body, every man is called in some way to be a husband and father. The priest, in imitation of Christ, marries the Church, taking her as his bride. And through this virile, celibate gift, he bears numerous spiritual children. This is why calling a priest “father” is not merely a title, but a recognition of his ontological identity. We can thus recognize that the spousal meaning of the body is an “indispensable theme” of man’s existence. “In fact, in the whole perspective of his own ‘history,’ man will not fail to confer a spousal meaning on his own body. Even if this meaning does undergo and will undergo many distortions, it will always remain [at] the deepest level... as a sign of the ‘image of God.’ Here we also find the road that goes from the mystery of creation to the ‘redemption of the body’ (see Rom 8).”25
Redemption of the Body/ Transformation of Sexual Desire
Due to sin, the “human body in its masculinity and femininity has almost lost the power of expressing this love in which the human person becomes a gift.” John Paul adds the adverb “almost” because the “spousal meaning of the body has not become totally foreign to that heart: it has not been totally suffocated in it by concupiscence, but only habitually threatened. The ‘heart’ has become a battlefield between love and concupiscence. The more concupiscence dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the spousal meaning of the body.”26
St. Paul vividly describes the interior battle we experience between good and evil in Romans 7. But he also speaks of the power of redemption at work within us which is able to do far more than we ever think or imagine (see Eph 3:20). Balancing these truths, we find both a real battle with lust and the possibility of a real victory over it. Christ calls us precisely to this victory in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28). Christ demonstrates that merely following a commandment externally is not enough. The problem is that fallen man is riddled with lust in his heart. Jesus came not to enforce a code of ethics; he came to transform the human ethos – that is, to transform the desires of our hearts. “Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the human person’s conscience and attitudes ...such as to express and realize the value of the body and sex according to the Creator’s original plan.”27
We “groan inwardly,” St. Paul says, as we await this transformation, this “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). But the redemption of the body is not merely some distant hope. The “‘redemption of the body’ ...expresses itself not only in the resurrection as victory over death. It is present also in the words of Christ addressed to ‘historical’ man [when] Christ invites us to overcome concupiscence, even in the exclusively inner movements of the human heart.”28
When lust “flairs up” in the human heart, most people think they only have two choices: indulge or repress. If these are the only two options, most Christians will choose repression, mistakenly believing it the path to holiness. John Paul II demonstrates that there is another way. Rather than repress lust by pushing it into the subconscious, trying to ignore it, or otherwise seeking to annihilate it, we must surrender our lusts to the paschal mystery. As we do, “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires.”29 In other words, as we allow lust to be “crucified,” we also come to experience the “resurrection” of God’s original plan for sexual desire. Not immediately, but gradually, progressively, as we take up our cross every day and follow, we come to experience sexual desire as the power to love in God’s image. In other words, we come to reclaim the true freedom of the gift connected to the spousal meaning of the body.30
“It is necessary,” John Paul says, “continually to rediscover the spousal meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift in what is ‘erotic.’ This is the task of the human spirit.... If one does not assume this task, the very attraction of the senses and the passion of the body can stop at mere concupiscence, deprived of all ethical value.” If man stops here, he “does not experience that fullness of ‘eros,’ which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good, and beautiful, so that what is ‘erotic’ also becomes true, good, and beautiful.”31
Eros, in other words, if it is to be fully itself, must open to divine love, to agape.32 Eros, in its fullness, always implies this “upward impulse” toward the Divine. However, an “intoxicated and undisciplined not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”33 It is precisely this “beatitude for which our whole being yearns” to which priestly celibacy bears witness. But the celibate man can only bear an effective and compelling witness to this beatitude to the degree that his erotic inclinations are disciplined and purified.

Celibacy Flows from the Ethos of Redemption

It is precisely this purification that makes celibacy for the kingdom a life of authentic sexual liberation, not sexual repression. In the end, the celibate person has two choices: redemption of eros or neurosis. The same holds true, of course, for spouses – but their neuroses can be more easily hidden within their sexually active relationship. Everyone, regardless of vocation, is called to experience the redemption of eros. This and this alone enables Christian celibacy and Christian marriage to be an authentic witness to the Marriage of the Lamb.
So much confusion about the Church’s teaching – not just on sex, but on the whole economy of salvation – stems from the tunnel vision that results from normalizing concupiscence. For those whose hearts are bound by lust, the idea of choosing a life of total celibacy is absurd. But for those who are being liberated from lust by the ethos of redemption, the idea of sacrificing the genital expression of their sexuality “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” not only becomes a real possibility – it becomes quite attractive, even desirable.
When authentically lived, the Christian call to life-long celibacy witnesses dramatically to the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Of course, a truly chaste marriage witnesses to the same freedom. Contrary to the tunnel vision perspective mentioned above, marriage does not provide a “legitimate outlet” for indulging one’s lusts. Thus, whoever has an authentic Christian understanding of marriage at the same time gains an authentic Christian understanding of life-long celibacy. Such an understanding comes from the ethos of redemption. As John Paul says, behind the call to continence in Matthew 19 and the call to overcome lust in Matthew 5 “one finds the same anthropology and the same ethos.”34 In other words, both vocations (marriage and celibacy) flow from the same vision of the human person and the same call to experience the redemption of our bodies, which includes the redemption of our sexual desires.
John Paul says that the invitation to celibacy for the kingdom even “enlargers” the perspectives of the ethos of historical man in light of the future anthropology of the resurrection. This does not mean that the anthropology of the resurrection replaces the anthropology of historical man. Men and women who choose celibacy for the kingdom, just like those who choose marriage, must contend with concupiscence. But historical man is also redeemed man. “Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness.’”35 Only the man living this “effective redemption” is properly prepared to embrace a life of celibacy for the kingdom. Lest we fall into the trap of thinking marriage legitimizes concupiscence, we must insist that living the effectiveness of redemption is also required of those who embrace marriage. The Holy Father expresses this when he says that the person who chooses celibacy for the kingdom must submit “the sinfulness of his own humanity to the powers that flow from the mystery of the redemption of the body...just as every other person does... whose way remains marriage. What is different,” the Pope observes, “is only the kind of responsibility for the chosen good, just as the kind of good chosen is different.”36
The difference between marriage and continence for the kingdom must never be understood as the difference between having a legitimate outlet for concupiscence on the one hand and having to repress concupiscence on the other. Only upon experiencing a true level of freedom in this regard do the Christian vocations (celibacy and marriage) make sense. For both flow from the same experience of the redemption of the body and of sexual desire. Both flow from the same spousal meaning of the body and the call to become a gift in and through masculinity and femininity. Without experiencing the freedom of the gift for which Christ has set us free, celibacy is seen as hopelessly repressive and marriage as legitimately indulgent. How far from the Gospel ethos these perspectives are!
In Conclusion
Paraphrasing a lengthy passage from John Paul II, he insists that we must learn with perseverance and consistency the meaning of our bodies, the meaning of our sexuality. We must learn this not only in the abstract (although this, too, is necessary), but above all in the interior reactions of our own “hearts.” This is a “science,” he says, which cannot really be learned only from books, because it is a question here of deep knowledge of our interior life. Deep in the heart we learn to distinguish between what, on the one hand, composes the great riches of sexuality and sexual attraction, and what, on the other hand, bears only the sign of lust. And although these internal movements of the heart can sometimes be confused with each other, we have been called by Christ to acquire a mature and complete evaluation allowing us to distinguish and judge the various movements of our hearts. “And it should be added that this task can be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man.”37
As this task is carried out, man comes to experience the spousal meaning of the body and the true freedom of the gift – a freedom he can express through the genital gift of self in marriage or through the celibate gift of self to Christ and his Church. In this way one sees that the Church’s esteem for celibacy lies not in a dualistic separation of “spiritual values” over those of the body and sex. Rather, the Church’s esteem for celibacy lies precisely in the fact that it points to the ultimate value of the body and of sex. For the one flesh union is a “great mystery” that refers to the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). The celibate priest, expressing an authentic sexual liberation, foregoes the former to devote himself entirely to the latter.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Washington, D.C.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

Pope Benedict XVI. God is Love. Boston: Pauline, 2006.

Pope John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio. Boston: Pauline, 1981.

_____. Letter to Families. Boston: Pauline, 1994.

_____. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline, 2006.

_____. Pastores Dabo Vobis. Boston: Pauline, 1992.

Vatican Council II. Gaudium et Spes. Boston: Pauline, 1965.

West, Christopher. Theology of the Body Explained, Second Edition. Boston: Pauline, 2007.