When seminaries aim to form Catholic men to live a chaste, celibate life, it’s a matter of both the right habits and the right perspective: choosing celibacy as a way to show God’s love.

“Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a gift and as Scripture says, not all can accept this teaching, just as not all are called to live it out,” Dr. Christina Lynch, director of psychological services at the Archdiocese of Denver’s St. John Vianney Seminary, told CNA. “Seminary formation is a place of discerning this call and capacity to live it out. The man must discern with his spiritual director if he is called and the Church must also discern if she is calling this man to live this life.”

Father James Mason, President-Rector of the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, reflected on celibacy from the perspective of a priest.

“When someone asks me about celibacy and the priesthood my first response is quite simple: Jesus. My desire to conform myself completely to Jesus and to give my life as he did as a sacrifice for his bride the Church,” he told CNA.

In the academic year 2017-2018, over 3,300 seminarians in the US were enrolled in post-baccalaureate studies, also known as the theologate, for both diocesan and religious orders. There were just under 1,300 college-level seminarians, and 350 enrolled in the three remaining high school seminary programs, according to figures from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Father Paul Hoesing, who serves as Kenrick-Glennon Seminary’s dean of seminarians and human formation director, told CNA that celibacy is “choosing to be unmarried,” and there are good and bad reasons for making such a choice.

“Some may choose celibacy for the bad reason of disdaining or avoiding marriage,” he said. “The virtue of chastity does not necessarily accompany that choice.”

Citing Christ's words, Hoesing said that celibacy is “for the sake of the kingdom.” It is a response to God’s sacrificial, enduring love.

“The chaste celibate says: ‘I want to give my life as a gift.’ Both the chaste celibate and the chaste couple can say ‘This is my body given for you’ with undivided and very joyful hearts,” Hoesing said.

“The chaste celibate declares that God’s love is as concrete and satisfying as living a faithful married life. Moreover, because the chaste celibate and the married couple are choosing their way of life as a personal response to God’s love, there is no competition. “

Both celibacy and marriage “make God’s love as evident and fruitful ‘on earth as it is in heaven’,” he said. “Whether married or single, chastity ensures that our sexuality is deeply experienced as a gift and way of communicating free, total and faithful love.”

Lynch said that all people are called to live chastely.

“Living a chaste life enables the person to right order their sexual desires and more fully receive and give the gift of love,” she said. “God created man and woman to live chastely which means to be a self-gift to each other and not use each other for gratification.”

Lynch said Denver’s St. John Vianney Seminary has a “very integrated approach in forming men.”

“We have a program called ‘Formation in Priestly Identity’ that not only addresses living a chaste celibate life but helps form men to be healthy persons who will flourish in life no matter their calling, whether marriage or priesthood,” she said. “The program intentionally addresses many tough issues, and approaches each topic as a team approach incorporating each area of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.”

“We begin by understanding what authentic manhood looks like and how one can grow into an authentic man given the distractions in today’s culture,” she said, adding, “chastity and celibacy are counter-cultural.”

The dangers of seminary life include thinking that men can “try to live as sexual beings,” rather than integrating their sexuality into their whole person, Lynch said. This comes amid other trends including excessive use of social media, lack of “real human contact” in face-to-face relationships, and “lack of involvement in communal settings.”

There are also some positive trends.

“Sexual psychology is becoming more aware of the addictive quality of certain sexual behaviors such as pornography, masturbation, and other online relationships,” said Lynch. “There is more of a trend to work on saving marriages rather than divorce.”

Hoesing said lay Christians can provide a model for seminarian formation.

“The healthy, holy, joy-filled married man provides a standard,” he said, resulting in questions like “Could I see this seminarian in a vibrant, life-giving marriage? Does the seminarian enjoy healthy friendships with married men? Does he have real friendships of any depth or maturity at all?”

He saw some danger in a seminary formation that creates a “bubble” between seminarians and families and couples who are developing their vocation. A seminary formation that is too “long and protective” might enable an unrealistic approach to parish life, making some seminarians, priests, and bishops seem removed from “real accountability and responsibility.”

Hoesing warned against an erroneous view of celibacy which sees it as simply a “bachelorhood” in which “marriage was never really considered or an option through circumstances or choice.”

In this case “celibacy is passively endured or drifted into, because marriage may be asking too much of the man’s personality or generosity,” he summarized. In other ways, celibacy is wrongly seen as “simply a discipline” that some rationalize by saying, “The Church requires it, so I imagine God can make it possible.”

Stresses on the “useful” or “practical” effects of celibacy can be “rationalizations for the painful absence of married life.” In Hoesing’s view, these include arguments that celibacy makes one better available to serve God’s people, that celibacy protects potential spouses and children from the difficulties of parish leadership, and that celibacy provides economic efficiencies and avoids practical difficulties for the Church.

“Availability, mobility, and efficiency do not mean intimacy,” he said. “Such negative justifications terminate in a kind of deadly disdain or ignorance for how to receive intimacy from God and others in chaste friendship.”

These errors, whether self-referential or pragmatic, have consequences, said Hoesing, who declared, “chastity is the first victim in the false views of celibacy.” These rationalizations will not promote “the integration of a man’s sexuality.”

Taking a too-practical approach to celibacy sees sexuality as something to be managed, which in turn fosters a false sense of self-reliance. Viewing sexuality as problematic risks playing into self-pity, while viewing it as “simply dangerous” traps a man into self-protection.

Church movements geared towards “intentional community living” or regular faith sharing are an aid to human formation, according to Hoesing.

“When young people learn how to share their faith in a small group or community, they can learn the art of living chastity,” he said. “The virtues, especially the chastity which governs our relational gifts, are best learned with others in a community.”

“Friendship is the school of virtue and chastity in particular,” he said. “While I may have a private life with rich friendships, I cannot have a secret life and real friendships. I will not have shared my heart. Too many unchaste people live in the misery of a self-made aloneness.”

The revival of sex abuse scandals has renewed concerns about seminary life. A Pennsylvania grand jury report, citing records from six diocese, said there were credible accusations against 300 priests for the sexual molestation, groping or rape of 1,000 minors in cases going back seven decades.

In June a New York archdiocesan board ruled credible a claim that Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick of Washington had sexually abused a minor as a priest in the archdiocese. That report led to other accusations of sexual misconduct, including abuse of seminarians and young priests. Two New Jersey dioceses McCarrick had led agreed to make legal settlements in 2005 and 2007 with two men who said they had been sexually assaulted by McCarrick.

McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in late July, the first American cardinal to do so.

Lynch said a failure of chastity is one reason for the sex abuse crisis, but not the sole reason.

“Abusing another person is the result of being an underdeveloped personality, a disordered personality, it is the lack of development in emotional maturity, stunted in nature,” she said.

For Hoesing, the sex abuse crisis is “a terrific failure of faith.” He suggested the crisis in the Church resulted from “a perfect storm of factors,” including the sexual revolution, systemic fearfulness, and low accountability.

Churches tended to engage in worldly self-protection, seeking to avoid scandal, and ended up brushing off the victims, rather than taking a gospel approach. Legal advice at the time included a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement, which was intended to protect victims but ended up protecting abusers, he said. Abusers were sent to psychological facilities and repeatedly “treated and released.”

There is also the problem of dissenting theologians who, while rejecting abuse, “still blindly excuse or remain complicit in relativistic immorality,” Hoesing charged.

“Bad theology results in bad pastoral practices, and these can become a playground for perpetrating greater deviance,” he said.