The new book From the Depths of Our Hearts by Cardinal Sarah and Pope Benedict XVI continues the Church’s ongoing discussion about clerical celibacy, but it seems to me that the whole topic has been kicked into a new category by the invention of artificial contraception.

What has contraception to do with celibacy? The quick-witted might observe that celibacy is the most effective “contraception.” It’s also a sure fire way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

However, that’s not the point of the headline. Instead I’ve been thinking about the way artificial contraception has radically changed the whole idea not only of sexuality, but of celibacy, and especially of the celibate priesthood.

Artificial contraception has changed celibacy because it has separated sexual activity from procreation, and once it separated sexual activity from procreation it follows that sexual activity might  just as well also be separated from marriage, for marriage is not only for the support and love of the spouses, but also for the security and well-being of children. 

The secularist might argue that if sex is not about procreation it is not necessarily about marriage either.

Artificial contraception has made sex into recreation rather than procreation, and therefore the meaning of marriage has also changed. Marriage is intended to be a sacrament of self-sacrifice. Now for the majority of Americans it is a sacrament of self-gratification. 

Consequently, celibacy has also lost its meaning. Celibacy only has meaning within the context of marriage. Marriage is a lifelong commitment within which two people grow into the maturity of love and (ideally) do so within the natural dynamic of a large and loving family. Celibacy reflects that love, because when the celibate person sacrifices marital love and family love to make their own lifelong commitment to the greater love of God and others.

The husband and wife love one another and their children completely and fully win a lifelong commitment. The celibate loves God and the human family of his parish and church as fully and completely as he can in a lifelong commitment. Contraception, however, reduces the fullness of marriage and family life to unlimited sexual gratification and thus pulls the meaning out from under marriage and not only pulls the meaning and purpose out of marriage but also pulls the meaning and purpose out of celibacy.

Because artificial contraception turns marriage into little more than sex it therefore turns celibacy into little more than “not having sex.”

Both celibacy and marriage, however, are far richer and deeper and more beautiful than “just sex” or “not having sex.”

Artificial contraception has not only degraded marriage, but it has completely altered the popular conception of marriage. This, as a result, has changed totally the conception of the celibate priesthood.

Let me explain with a practical example. Before artificial contraception, marriage was a sacrament of self-sacrifice. For the vast majority of men and women, marriage meant a large family, long hours of hard work to support that family and a difficult, but rewarding life of sacrifice, work, trials, tribulations, joys and sorrows. To be a celibate priest was also a rewarding life of self-sacrifice but by a different path.

Think for a moment of the choice a young man would have had in a Catholic community in a place like Philadelphia in the 1940s.

He would have seen his uncles and father and older brothers who had chosen marriage. Perhaps they lived in a little row house with a wife and half a dozen kids. The man would work long hours to support his large family. He and his wife had a joyful but hard life of self-sacrifice.

The young man might be considering the priesthood, and for him the celibate life was not so bad. He got an education. Maybe he had the chance to travel. He lived in a big rectory with three or four other priests with a nice Italian grandma to cook for them and look after them. In the extended family in his part of the city he had mom and pop and brothers and sister and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews. He served them as “father” in the way his brothers served their own kids. It was also a way of self-sacrifice, and compared to his brother’s big family it has equal joys and sorrows of its own.

The choice between celibacy and fatherhood was between one way of total sacrifice and another way of total self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice as a father and husband or self-sacrifice as a father-priest.

Now think of the choices facing a young Catholic man today: the models he has for fatherhood are mostly men who have used contraception to have two or maybe three children. The wife works. Double income. Trophy house. A good retirement plan. Kids in private school. Not much suffering or difficulty at all. It seems to him like the modern American Dad has it all because contraception has provided the way for him to “have it all.”

The young man who is considering the priesthood is likely to face a life living alone in a big rectory, being suspected of being a pedophile and working long hours for little reward or recognition. His celibacy seems like a curse not only of loneliness, but a reminder that he has given up everything the suburban man takes for granted. Contraception has not only given the suburban man endless child-free sex. It has given him access to a previously unimagined level of wealth.

Marriage has therefore become not a sacrament of self-sacrifice, but a sacrament of self-gratification. Whereas, for our grandfathers marriage was a way to give all, for us marriage is a way to get all.

No wonder the celibate may think from time to time that it is all very unfair. Not only does he give all, but the very meaning of what he is giving is pulled out from under him because the meaning of marriage (in which the meaning of celibacy is rooted) has been destroyed. Conversely, while marriage gives celibacy meaning, it may be now that celibacy may begin to give meaning back to marriage.

This could be reversed, however. The self-giving service of the celibate priest may start to remind people of the true meaning of marriage. The true meaning of marriage is that it is a sacrament of self-sacrifice and service. Married people may observe the self-sacrificial sacrifice of the priest and be reminded that as the priest is “married to the church” in loving service, so too, they are to be married to their spouses in a lifelong commitment of loving service.

This is why the Catholic Church will soon become the sole defender of marriage: because it has continued to be the sole defender of celibacy.