There is an African proverb that says, “He who chases two rabbits will catch none.” Recently I cut my finger because I was talking on the phone and trying to trim the wax off a candle at the same time. Because neither of the tasks needed my full attention, I thought I could do them both at the same time. This, by the way, is the root of the problem of texting while driving. Since neither task uses your full brain power, in theory you can do them both at once, but in reality it is impossible.
Today’s computers can simultaneously run Word, Skype, e-mail, iTunes, and several web sites, but the human mind cannot run in several directions without becoming scattered. Having unintentionally trained myself not to focus, I found it was almost impossible to do papers. As soon as my brain would start to ruminate, my fingers would surf to something else. My writing quality suffered because I never achieved the depth that I needed. The mind needs focus in order to achieve something excellent.
If a scattered mind is a problem, a scattered heart is a disaster. The heart cannot go in two directions at the same time, and this is why the commitment of marriage liberates the heart by allowing it to focus. Marriage is fundamentally a “Yes” to dedicating your life and affection towards a single relationship. Married couples need to say “No” to other possibilities which undermine this commitment, in order to protect the original “Yes.” This does not mean that a married person cannot love many people, but that none of these loves can be allowed to threaten the fundamental commitment.
Like marriage, priesthood indicates a direction of the heart, it is a way of giving your life in love. The more we describe priesthood as a life of self-sacrificing love, the more people say, “That’s exactly what marriage is meant to be.” The issue is not that priesthood and marriage are different but precisely their similarity. Both are paths of love that demand complete dedication. This is the reason why, by ancient tradition, once a man was ordained he was no longer permitted to marry. It is not the Church which limits his freedom, but the “Yes” he has given to a call from God, which directs his life in a way that excludes a subsequent marriage.
I am not saying that it is impossible to be married and to serve God as a priest, but I am saying that it is better to dedicate yourself to one or the other. This is what St. Paul means in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, when he says, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided.” It is not that married love and priestly love are incompatible, but that it is much better for the heart to be focused in one direction.
One could argue that, since it is possible to do marriage and ministry, candidates for the priesthood should not be challenged to adopt celibacy but should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to be married or not. The root of this objection is the fear that the Catholic Church is setting the bar too high, demanding more than the human capacity to give. This, exactly, is the foolish genius of the Catholic faith, that nothing short of giving your whole heart, mind, soul and strength will do. In being so demanding the Catholic Church imitates Jesus Christ, who said,
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'” (Luke 14:26-30)
Celibacy is the insistence that a man who wishes to be a herald of the Gospel must first decide to invest all his bricks in one tower, and place the service of God before all other commitments. In this, I believe, celibacy is a visible sign that the man who preaches has understood the demands of the Gospel which he claims to proclaim.