( A secret World: Sexuality and the search for Celibacy, by A.W. Richard Sipe)

What is the process of celibacy?

How does one come to the solid awareness, conviction, and reality that “I am a celibate person?”

Since celibacy is the redirection of sexual energy from its original goal of direct discharge to both delayed and derivative gratification, it cannot be attained by a simple at of the will. The achievement of celibacy involves a series of developmental tasks that are ongoing, overlapping and interactive. It is a lifelong process involving stages of refinement toward completion and integration.

After analyzing celibate search from hundreds of priests’ stories Richard Sipe has come to formulate the process in a tripartite interactive model.

1.It involves developmental relationships and patterns, many of which precede any celibate intention by vitally influence the sexual/celibate pattern.

2. There is a process of internalization of the celibate ideal from intention to achievement.

3. There is a sequential process that involves the refinement of the forces from awareness to integration.



At the core of the celibate search and process is the achievement of a relationship rather than the absence of one. The true celibate is able to forge a real and durable relationship with the transcendent.

            This capacity for a relationship of such depth and magnitude is preceded and conditioned by the parent-child and especially the mother-child bond

            One life story after another verified this core reality: the process and possibility of celibacy are essentially entwined with the capacity for a refined relationship with the Unseen, of ample force and measure to organize one’s existence and energies. As one priest wrote: “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.” It is the connection with the Ultimate Other that under-girds, infuses, and crowns the celibate quest. In the tradition of Erik Erikson, this conceptualization sees the life cycle as a journey from the Primary Other through and with the Significant Others to the Ultimate Other.

1. The Primary relationship:

One can hardly overemphasize the importance of the first three years of life for the development of personality and character in later life. The roots of self-image are firmly established in the first two years when the awareness of identity “ is maintained by comparison and contrast” and when the predictability of the rhythm of gratification / frustration associated with the loved and loving mother lays the foundations for object constancy and meaningful and satisfying relatedness.

            An ongoing loving and supportive bond with an adequate mother, living or dead, seems to be a factor in many celibates’ lives.

            For some with an inadequate mother, deprivation is compensated for and equilibrium and constancy are found in Mother Church.

            Object constancy is most significant for later spiritual growth, especially for establishing “the presence of God”. This presence parallels a child’s need to retain the mental image of his primary relationship.

            The quality of all subsequent bonds will be marked by the core primary relationship of the would-be celibate.

2. Familial / Developmental.

The family can provide the lifelong model for warm, close sharing and for emotionally satisfying relationships that do not involve sexual exchange. It is not accidental that “brother” “ sister” as well as “father” are appellations and paradigms of celibate functioning.

            During preadolescence home and family form the base of the boy’s intellectual and affective life. He uses his friends and companions in the secret pursuit of knowledge about the body and its sexual functions as partners in sexual games, and in the enactment of sexual fantasies.

            The histories of many celibates confirm how very significant this early period is in the formation of their sexuality and impulse towards celibacy.

3. Educational / formative :

            Sexual activity during seminary years is far more restricted than among men of equal age and education elsewhere. There is, however, no overwhelming correlation between sexual abstinence during training and later celibate achievement.

            The formation of bonds of security and emotional and economic sustenance also provides the basis of a brotherhood of lasting shared values and ideals. After more than 50 years of celibate living, one priest said, “ I cannot imagine another profession that could supply such love and support.”

            The seminary provides a satisfying support system of both discipline and fraternal relationships designed to foster and internalization of those two entities. Both are necessary to sustain celibate practice.

4. Ministerial/ service.

If celibacy is to thrive, it must be able to withstand the rigorous demands of unrequited loving service. Great satisfaction as well as monumental frustration can accrue to the unselfish attention to the community. The ability to foster and maintain essentially ministerial and service related relationships that have enduring and comprehensive meaning for the celibate tests the celibate.

            It is during this long period that the celibate heroes are made and the compromises that threaten integrity are tested.

            The degree to which these ministerial relationships flourish is related to the quality and mastery of earlier stages of relational achievement.

            The isolate and the person of rigid ego-adaptation are not well defended against the pressures and demands of service. For them, a period of sexual experimentation tends to be destructive of general relatedness and may lead to aborting the celibate quest or establish split-off sexual live.

            Celibacy an the achievement of celibate relationships require a personality of fluid ego adaptation.

5. Expanding awareness of universal interrelatedness.

            Lived celibacy leads to greater similarity than dissimilarity between celibates and non-celibates in this regard: many men described the experience of greater inner interrelatedness with all human beings as their celibate identities solidified.

            Several times this phenomenon took on the quality of a “religious experience”. Such as near-death experience.

            One man described a month long “high” during which he had an acute awareness of both the presence of God and his own oneness with others. His subsequent productivity and accomplishment were visible, public, and remarkable.

            Whether coupled with an incident or not, many celibates reported a sense of cognizance that could be labeled “universal interrelatedness”. They were clearly able to transcend emotionally their institutional and cultural barriers.

            The feeling of relatedness appears to be the natural outcome of the process of celibacy and the refinement of one’s relationships. It is the culmination of a progression whereby sincere, devoted, and highly motivated men seek the highest spiritual ideal of love and service to mankind.


The second dynamic of the process is the movement from intention to goal and integration. What motivates a man to sacrifice his sexuality? The love of God is only one of the motives. The determination to be celibate is usually adjunctive to and derivative of some perceived good or advantage. It is mediated by a person or the image of a person whom one wants to be like. The advantages of education, prestige, or opportunity, if not power, are commonly mentioned as early motivating factors as well.

1. Celibate image and intention.

This first step involves the formation of an image and awareness of an intention. The image of the celibate is usually formed through the family, church or school where the celibate model was extolled or revered.

            A sense of vocation is often present. At first this might just be a vague awareness that one “should be” celibate. The awareness is a cornerstone because over subsequent decades of the man’s life it will support the expanding edifice that is his place of service.

            Some have this awareness very early in life during primary school…

            Some may come to it after an experience of the futility of the direction of their lives…. And the example of some person whose life they viewed as meaningful may become the impetus to consider celibate priesthood.

            Economic conditions : hardship suffered by the family versus the stability and advantage one perceives among the parish clergy..

            Death in the family can be a powerful force in the rearrangement of values and the interpretation of meaning.

2. Awareness of the capacity to be celibate.

            How does a man know if he has a capacity for celibacy and not merely an admiration for a personally attainable goal? First he must know himself and his ability to enter into and sustain relationships. Second, he must have some knowledge of the process that supports that ability.

            Sine the Council of Trent, the seminary training period has been meant to inculcate into the young aspirant a pattern of life which will develop the necessary internal discipline to sustain celibate practice. Three factors support motivation toward priesthood: 1) economic dependency; 2) the position of specialness in a social setting; and 3) a measure of power.      

            For many their capacity for celibacy was first confronted by an experience of conversion.   In conversion, awareness of a transcendent reality leads to a reevaluation of one’s past life and produces a sense of one’s imperfection and yet also a sense of gratitude for being part of such a relationship where one is “accepted,” “validated”, “loved” and chosen are the feelings that are frequently expressed.

            Frequently, sexual feelings or alliances are reevaluated then.           

            A priest who had practiced celibacy for nearly 20 years explained that although he felt he had a capacity for celibate dedication, he felt he needed a strict and structured atmosphere for his life since he had lived a sexually active and free existence prior to his conversion.

3. Knowledge of the Process ( how to be celibate)

Control, or the ability to influence one’s existence and environment, is part of the task of and reward for the celibate quest. The image of the athlete in training borrowed from St. Paul has inspired many celibates. There is justifiable pride in accomplishing a difficult task – one that takes discipline, practice, sacrifice, and a willingness to engage a powerful, unrelenting opposing force. Regulating one’s sexual instinct surely involves all of the above.

            How do you do it? Traditionally a seminary was a finely tuned program based on the monastic tradition which did indeed foster a sense of self-denial, order, community and shared values.

            However it was not always successful. It often allowed for the development of impersonalization and false spirituality. It failed in three ways; 1) the avoidance of sexuality, 2) dependence on a system of secrecy, 3) lack of personal witness.

4. Practice:

The sustained intention to be celibate needs practice to achieve reality. The path from intention to integration is not without risk. The important thing for the person wishing to practice and achieve celibacy is that the struggle remain an honest part of celibate search – not hidden in denial, justified self-servingly by rationalization, or split from one’s ministerial life. It takes a delicate and unflinching self-assessment to distinguish between a felix culpa – which leads to greater spiritual awareness and dedication – and a pattern of compromise and self-indulgence.

5. Commitment.

The initial stage of the celibate process is the determination that the relationship – or the vocation – is worth the sacrifice. Commitment demands a level of integrity and self-honest of unusual magnitude. Commitment serves as the example to the community of believers.

            A certain level of commitment is involved even in the first stage – intention – and is refined and tested through the successive stages. Real commitment cannot be accomplished without sexual/ celibate knowledge and the risk/ practice of celibate service in vivo – in real life, interacting with real people. The commitment is not to some abstract ideal but to a person.

6. Achievement and integration.

The achievement of celibacy is not the accidental passage of sexual feelings into oblivion by old age. One cannot be celibate by accident. One has to achieve it, since it involves integration of one’s identity without the ongoing support and benefit of a sexual friendship.

            For some sexual abstinence tends to reinforce itself and sexual temptation diminishes with prolonged periods of abstinence. For others, however, sexual interest and enticement remains but their discipline and commitment becomes easier to maintain .

            Internalized celibacy is not directly apparent; its accomplishment is integrated into the man’s life goals and meanings. Each one has to have a system of discipline such as routine of prayer, vital intellectual interests, hobbies, etc.

            Sex does not disappear entirely from consciousness even after years of celibate dedication. One needs to keep up the discipline one has practiced.



There seems to be a series of stages through which the seeker must pass. The Stages seem to cluster around certain time periods and therefore this model is linear.

1. Initial awareness /Depression : Gain/ Loss

Every man who wanted to be celibate described an initial awareness, often vague, of a sense of loss. The first inner determination to be celibate always has a certain depressive quality about it, no matter how positively the allied good of the priesthood and study are perceived.

            Not all men conceptualized this downward stage as having to do with sex but it is most probably connected with the men’s blurry anticipation of the future lack of sexual outlet and the giving up of a sexual relationship. As one priest said, “ I realized that I would have to live my life like a man who was deprived of an arm or leg. I would do the best I could, but nothing would give me the use of a limb I didn’t have.” This is related to the knowledge and experience of being a “eunach for Christ”.

2. Like Me/ Not like Me:

            Somewhere between the second and fifth years after ordination an awareness of the degree and manner in which the people outside the clerical environment are “like me” or “not like me.”

            After living in an atmosphere relatively separated from the people during training, now interact pastorally with people and come to know about their life-struggles – including their struggles in the sexual area (confessions).

            “Everyone has a sex life except me,” said a young celibate in this stage of his search. “I’m not sure I want to spend my whole life sleeping alone,” said another man who had vowed celibacy three years earlier.

            The most successful negotiation of this stage of celibate internalization involves a solidification of one’s celibate self by role definition and by identification with the community of celibates.

            It is not infrequent that a certain amount of sexual experimentation is indulged in at this stage. This may involve in some a brief abandonment of celibate practice only to return to a celibate search with renewed determination. Some compromise, others abandon priesthood at this stage.

3. In Control / Controlled By:

Clerical celibacy exists in a framework of authority; the power structure in turn supports a man living within it. Sooner or later the ties with authority must be clarified, absorbed, internalized, and in one sense desexualized. If we take only one facet of the authority structure – the filial, where the church and her superiors assume parental roles of protector nurturer, and role model – sooner or later one must leave to become his own man. By so doing, his conviction, values, goals, and behaviors fall under his own control and there will progressively be less dependence on and devotion to externals.

            Celibates most commonly report this stage clustering around 13th to 16th years post-vow.

            For some there are instances of deep personal affiliation with an authority figure and then disenchantment. Progressively one has to come to the awareness of where the supports of celibacy ultimately rest – the self.

            Movement beyond external authority to greater internalization is the salient factor at this stage of celibate development. To navigate it well one must reach a new level of relationship with the transcendent and in one’s self-identity.

            Note: St. Ignatius introduced tertianship : a year of “second novitiate” 12 or 13 years after the vows.

4. Alone / lonely:

“ Lonely” is one of the most frequent replies when one asks a celibate how he feels. Loneliness is a lifelong struggle for anyone who is serious about maintaining a deep relationship.

            Loneliness is a deeply personal privation that takes on different colourings at different times in life.

            There inevitably comes a time in the celibate’s search when he has to rise above loneliness to a stage of aloneness. It is the final step in resolving the illusion that primal merging is possible.

            To be alone means that one is able to accept the reality of one’s self and destiny, which requires a sense of the reality of the transcendent and one’s dependence on and relationship with that reality.

            This stage is best defined by celibates who have been ordained for more than two decades (22-27 years) when they are confronted with the question “ Is it worth it?”

            At this stage, it is the lack of sexual companionship rather than sexual discharge that threatens the celibate commitment. The person who cannot tolerate true aloneness cannot move beyond this level of celibacy and therefore remains vulnerable to sexual compromises even after years of discipline.

            The aloneness embraced by those who are able to do so is based on sexual resolution, a deep relationship with the transcendent, and an ability to see the transcendent in other people.

5. Integration:

            There is something mystic about men who have integrated celibacy firmly and unequivocally into their being and behavior. The awareness of the transcendent in themselves and others, past and future comes together in them and in their work. At times they record moments that might be called ecstatic or classed as spiritual peak experiences but the real test of their resolve is in their daily lives.

            They have a spiritual transparency – they indeed are what they seem to be. They are not without the faults or idiosyncrasies developed in pursuing a rarified form of existence and service but they also typify what is written about in literature as a true eschatological witness. These men point to a life beyond and to value not yet achieved. They exercise a freedom of service to their fellow humans unbound by any institutional restraints. They are what they set out to be: men of God.

            These men are few and they can be categorized as having integrated celibacy beyond all of its stages and have transcended the self to a level beyond sexuality, when “male and female, and also Jew and Greek” no longer have meaning.