Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I was recently part of a small group setting in which a young priest shared a fascinating story. He'd been talking about the role of the celibate life in the Church, and he made a passing comment about an old friend whom he'd known some years back. This friend was a Protestant, and had once felt a strong call to live a life of celibacy. This friend had felt so strongly driven by this desire that he had approached his pastor about it. The pastor admitted that he, too, had felt a call to the celibate life when he was younger, but counseled the young man to try to move past it. The pastor explained that he had suppressed those feelings and pursued the married life, and he encouraged the young man to do the same.
Until that moment, I don't think it had ever occurred to me that there are people out there who are drawn to the celibate life but have no clear avenues for pursuing it. I mean, it makes sense now that I think about it: God has expressed his full plan for the human life through the structure of his Church, and that structure involves people who live lives of celibacy. So, presumably, there are plenty of people out there in the world who are meant for this path, but don't pursue it because they don't know it's an option. Granted, there is nothing to stop a Protestant man or woman from making a private commitment to embrace the unmarried life, but it would be an extremely difficult calling to live out without the support of a community of other folks who have been called to this same vocation.
The more I think about it, the more saddened I am to think of what our culture lost when schismatic branches of Christianity did away with the option of consecrated religious life. In the eyes of the world, these kinds of vocations are a negative aspect of the Church. According to the common wisdom, celibate priests and consecrated religious make huge, unnecessary sacrifices. But what we rarely consider is the fact that some people are indeed meant for this kind of vocation; maybe it's not most people, but, like that priest's Protestant friend who had that deep yearning, there are plenty of folks out there who have a special call to remain chaste and unmarried their entire lives.
Like all the big heresies, the rejection of celibate vocations sounds like it should be true. It certainly fits right in with the conventional wisdom to say that nobody should have to live without the sexual aspect of his human nature in order to live a full life. But, like all heresies, it's based on man's ideas, not God's. And the sad fact is that when there is no longer the option of the consecrated religious life, many people miss out on being able to fulfill their heart's deepest longings.