Monday, January 16, 2006

Holy Celibacy: More Than Absence

2 Epiphany
1 Hilary

What do you think of when you hear the word "celibacy"?

In a recent series about sexual ethics, we explored the problems caused in evangelical communities by an insufficient theology for celibate vocations. Those communities very often implicitly affirm and sometimes explicitly declare that a state of “not marriage” is a kind of “second-best,” lonely and unhappy state of Christian discipleship. Sometimes folks in other traditions talk up the celibate vocation as a kind of idealized, super-spiritual state. Both are wrong. And do you know what? Lies are bad for you.

If a celibate vocation exists at all, it cannot (as a gift of God) be simply the absence of a good, but must be a positive good in itself. Just as marriage is a way of life to which we are called for the love and service of God and other people, so is celibacy a way of life to which we are called for the love and service of God and other people.

A.W. Richard Sipe defines it as
“a freely chosen, dynamic state, usually vowed, that involved an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive” (Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living, and Serving, Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1994, 40).
First, note that the absence of celibacy is that of “sexual gratification” and one-flesh union. It is not the absence of deep relationships or even of “family life” in a community. I’ll come back to this point.

What celibacy emphatically does not offer is protection from the uncertainty, pain, and exhilaration that will come with living in friendship with other people. The lifestyle is a way of positive “redirection,” and never meant to be the “destruction of sexual instinct” (Sipe, Celibacy, 41). Being in relationship with other people, and learning to love well and accept their love in return is always a full-time job and a universal call, whether one is married or celibate.

I’ll reiterate. Celibacy is not the aimless absence of relationships or even of sexual gratification. Abstinence is different from Holy Celibacy, because holy celibacy is for God and for others. (Actually the same could be said of being merely “partnered” – what is commonly called “married” and living in a state of Holy Matrimony.) Celibacy requires conscious planning and discipline, cultivation and community support, just like marriage. Godly celibacy is never a path of fear and hiding from sexuality or relationships, or a life of selfishness and self-centeredness. It is a positive way of blessing, hallowing and consecrating the flesh.

I'm posting this as a "talking point," and I'd enjoy your opinions. Do these notions seem provocative to you? What has "celibacy" meant in your own faith community, and your own journey?

I look forward to interacting in the comments, and I've got several more posts on this in the queue, so check back. Next: Celibacy as “Space for God”


Expax said...

I always liked how in the de virgintate how it expresses that celibacy and marriage often share the same focus. The calling of celibacy is a blessed state if one is able to stay focused in on our desiring God. The calling of marriage is a blessed state ifone is able to stay focused in on our desiring God. Just it leaves it to which one is discerned to promote a greater longing/desire for God within you. And thats something that can only be done on each individual basis.

Oh by the way a funny thing we use to say in college to crack on being single was to proclaim at the top of our lungs or in a quite whisper "Bachelors till the rapture!" Oh boy those were my Pentecostal days.

Anonymous said...

Quite rightly, Kyle, you put the case frankly - celibacy is a hugely misunderstood concept. Having had many conversations with people who don't seem to understand that there is a diff between abstinence and celibacy, often dismiss celibacy as sexual repression/fear and underestimate the sheer process that one has to go through to achieve holy celibacy - as you rightly say, the same amount of effort and support is needed as in a marriage.

rawbbie said...

I'd like to hear more on the difference you see between abstinence and celibacy. Abstinence is the closest thing to celibacy that I have ever encountered in any christian fellowship. It seems to me to be a position of fear, a position focused on a person, (future spouse) not on God.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me in my experience that my fellow evangelical friends in genereal view marriage as some sort of default position, and only those who feel "called" to be single/celibate should do so. And if you're not using your celibacy in some or "ministry", then you're just wasting your life and being unproductive. I would also think that with the priest/pedophilia scandals that there's an increased stigma attached to celibacy. A lot of people seem to think that a celibate person must be looking at porn or molesting a child in secret.

Kyle said...

Maaan, Ben, there you go with the John Piper slogans. shiver :0)

Jen, I think that it can be a point well taken that some people consider celibacy to result from fear. I will argue (and I'm sure any vocational celibates would agree!) that neither celibacy nor marriage provide an effective way to sidestep the task of dealing with one's own sexuality. Some people marry because they fear their sexuality, and other people surely consider celibacy for the same reason. They're all welcome to do so, because it's not going to work. You're dead on, Holy Celibacy is a process just like anything else, and anybody who really works the process is going to face all of those things anyway.

Robbie, I see "abstinence" as just that: abstaining from something, without necessarily investing theological content. I think we're all meant to cultivate a Holy Celibacy - space for God - in anticipation of marriage, for those majority of people who are not called to lifelong celibacy. Mere abstinence (even in a Christian setting) seems to be about waiting for something good rather than enjoying the goodness of Celibacy that preceeds Matrimony.

Josh, your friends may have it half right. I don't see a big problem with assuming most of us are meant for marriage, but I think we should all stop and consider whether we're called to celibacy. And of course, when all of life is ministry...

Kyle said...

Oh, and everybody, thanks for reading and for commenting. Even if you don't have anything to say about it, I so appreciate it when I can offer a perspective for folks to listen to.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to say anything profound in this comment. To adequately address this issue, I would need to do three or four posts about it on my own blog. Hmmmm, don't tempt me....

But actually it's already been done better than I'll ever do it. I wanted to recommend one of the best short discussions of celibacy that I have ever read in Henri Nouwen's book "Clowning in Rome."

And to leave you with one of my all time favorite Nouwen quotes. Nouwen links a celibate lifestyle integrally to contemplative prayer and (voluntary) poverty. And then he says, "A wealthy celibate is like a fat sprinter." It bears some thinking about, as does his entire discussion.


Katey said...

Ok, even after reading all the comments and such I'm still a little blurry on the difference. I guess I get the jist, but just barely grasping the concept doesn't work too well for me. I get how celibacy and abstinace are different but not enough to understand in any other way other than in my mind. See, if I tried to put my understanding of it into words it would not make any sence at all.

Mark Mossa, SJ said...

As a Jesuit, I have made a vow of chastity. It might be more accurately called "celibate" chastity to distinguish it from the chastity which one promises to one's spouse within the context of marriage. All Christians are called to chastity. Abstinence is also a form of chastity, but is usually practiced in the absence of a formal commitment, e.g. marriage vows or religious vows.

Now, my vow of chastity is necessitated by the particular vocation which God has called me to, that of a religious and soon-to be priest. To some it won't make sense. Heck, sometimes to me it doesn't make sense! Indeed, it only makes sense in the context of a life radically centered on God. Because I have chosen such a life, I have also chosen to do so according to the way that life has been lived (and lived successfully) in the tradition of the Church, by committing to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. There are many practical advantages for ministry afforded by living a celibate life. It makes one available in a way that a married person could not be, for example. It also is necessitated in some ways by the type of community life that religious orders like the Jesuits live. But these kind of practical considerations can never quite get at what celibate chastity is really all about. It's a witness to the willingness to die to self in order to live in the service of God. This is something our culture finds very hard to understand, they would rather think it unnatural, though it's a discipline that's been practiced for thousands of years!

That said, I don't understand myself to have a vocation to celibacy, it's just something that is necessary to the life that God has called me to. So, if I were kicked out of the Jesuits tomorrow, it would be unlikely that I would live the rest of my life as a celibate, unless God then called me to another voation which required it.

There are no doubt some people who have experienced a specific call to celibacy in the context of their relationship with God. And I believe God would have a reason for asking that of somebody. God's ways are not our ways. But, for me, being a Jesuit and a priest means being celibate, and I know that's what God wants, and it's a great life. Sometimes, it would be nice to come home to a wife at night, instead of a house full of men. But I know I'm a better person because I have chosen to do what God asked of me, and hopefully the people of God are a little better off as well for me having done so!



Kyle said...

Arlen, Nouwen's book is on my list. Hopefully I'll get to it before too very long. I think that's a noteworthy quote as well; Sipe had echoed some similar sentiments. Both that bit and Mark's argument point to something very important: celibacy must be for something, for God, for others, but not for us and not for itself.

Katey, maybe I'll give it another shot. I think Mark may have corrected my language a bit. "Chastity" is a state of holiness in terms of sexuality. Kind of a shorthand for doing the right things in relationship with God, sex, and people. For unmarried people that means abstinence, for the married that means faithfulness, and for people to take a vow to be "single" for life, that's celibacy.

My criticism of the typical evangelical line about "abstinence," is that it's all about "not having sex" as a way of being holy. Well, I imagine that's the most important part of it, but it's not everything. It can't just be about missing intimacy or not having a partner. Other things have to be focussed on.

I don't think I quite get it, myself.

Mark, thanks for dropping by, and for your thoughtful comment. Maybe I would do better to understand celibacy not as some kind of "independant"
vocation, but a discipline that fits into a larger vocation, such as priesthood or some other specific work or witness that requires or would benefit from vowed celibacy.

Thanks, everybody.

+ Alan said...

I guess I'll jump in here too and say something that seems to be implicitly, at least, begged in the conversation thus far. What Mark said in particular, makes me think of it.

I do understand the tradition of the Catholic Church (in majority - generally speaking) on celibacy in the Religious life, as priests, brothers or nuns. I understand the thought behind it, etc. - availiability, focus, not being able to make your son the bishop when you die, etc. :) And I say "generally" because this is not a statement by the Church as a moral absolute - there ARE married priests in the Roman Church, more than one would expect.

I'll say this here while also saying that I do respect anyone going into such a thing, considering the cost, etc. I know there is much talk and disagreement about this even among the ranks of practicing Catholics. I simply think it's unfortunate that there is still a canonical, legal restriction about celibacy as linked to the ordained ministry there. Books have been written, I know - I'll try to say why briefly.

Partly because of what Kyle is talking about. I believe that very possibly this canonical restriction has made any "vocation" to celibacy as a holy life almost null. Because, it has become a defacto state that one has to enter into in order to follow another call into a certain kind of ministry. Obviously there are people who can be called into priesthood as well as married life simultaneously - the Church doesn't inherently say otherwise, evidenced by the canonical loopholes.

So, some rethinking is probably in order in both worlds - the world where "Religious" vocation and celibacy are considered the most holy - and the one in which celibacy is considered weird. Neither is true. I would definitely agree, the normative state of the majority of humans (created as sexual and reproducing beings) is marriage, but I also most definitely believe there are people called to the celibate life, positively - and this may or may not accompany having a vocation to religious life as a priest or otherwise.

If such a general restriction was lifted and there remained Orders in which celibacy was the rule - this, to me, would be extremely helpful. For those called to such a life, there would be room for a vowed celibate life. And there wouldn't be the case of someone entering a celibate life who wasn't called to one, because they have no choice. As IF the Curia is going to ask for my opinion. :)

I know, for now, this is the general way of the Catholic ordained ministry. And while I don't think it's anything close to "evil" or anything like that, I would respectfully say I believe it to be unfortunate. Some life-vocation may be missed because of it, for some. Again, it's the fact that it has been made the defacto state that makes it difficult for someone to respond to a positive vocation to celibacy. I'm sure that will make sense to some and not to others. Grace and Peace to all in this house.

Katey said...

Thanks Kyle, that does make it clearer.

Love & Peace

Mark Mossa, SJ said...


Your point is a good one.

First, there are married Catholic priests, as you indicated. Many don't know this. Episcopal and Lutheran (I think) ministers who are married and wish to become Catholic priests are allowed to do so. Also, men who become priests in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church are permitted to be married (We don't see much of this in the U.S. because the U.S. is predominately Latin rite, and in the Latin rite celibacy is required of priests).

Secondly, celibate priesthood has not always been the tradition of the Church, and thus is not sacrosanct. This requirement is not essential to priesthood, though currently required by the Latin rite. So, don't be surprised if some time in the future the Church does decide to allow marriage for "secular" or diocesan priests ordained in the Latin rite (though probably not any time soon).

Finally, even if the Church allowed marriage for diocesan priests, celibate chastity would still continue to required of religious priests and religious women, since that has more or less been the tradition in monastic and religious life all along.

So, that means we Jesuits and members of other religious orders would continue to take a vow of chastity, even if Latin rite diocesan priests were allowed to marry.

So, as Alan suggests, we could have both, allowing people to choose which direction they'd like to take. But, like I said, don't look for it to happen any time soon!

Kyle said...

Thanks, guys.