Seeds of celibacy

One of the key Scriptural sources for the theology of celibacy is Matthew 19:12:

There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. (RSV)

Most Christian thinking about celibacy has focused on the clause about eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Within both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, a celibate vocation is understood as a choice to give up marriage for the sake of service to God.

Because Christians who think about celibacy at all focus almost exclusively on voluntary celibacy, many gay and lesbian people object to the prohibition on gay sex in the Christian tradition on the grounds that it imposes involuntary celibacy on people who are exclusively attracted to their own sex.

But this stems, at least in part, from focusing on only a third of what Jesus has to say here. In this post, I want to think a little bit about the relevance of the other two clauses: those who were born eunuchs and those who were made eunuchs by men.

We typically think of eunuchs as men who have been castrated so that they can guard the harem, or sing the soprano part in the opera. That idea of eunuch fits well enough with eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men; but what can Jesus have meant by those who have been eunuchs from birth?

If those in the last category of eunuch voluntarily chose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, those in the first two categories had no choice. For them, marriage was excluded either by an accident of birth or by something imposed on them by force at a young age.

I don’t think that this verse, taken alone, provides all that much structure for a theology of involuntary celibacy. But then, the clause about becoming a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom tells us very little about the nature of voluntary celibate vocations. It merely affirms the existence of such a calling; fleshing the idea out is left as an exercise for the later tradition, and in fact, ways of living out voluntary celibacy only emerged slowly during the Church’s history.

Christ’s line about becoming a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom is a seed that has grown up and borne fruit in the monastic tradition, in the contemplative religious orders, in the mendicant orders, and in many other forms. I merely suggest that Christ’s words about the other categories of eunuchs might prove an equally fruitful seed if seriously cultivated.

I think that the voluntariness of most of the existing theology of celibacy makes it a poor fit for those of us who find ourselves involuntarily celibate in obedience to Christian teaching. That doesn’t mean that the tradition is of no use to us: many insights from existing writings on celibacy may turn out to provide valuable insights into involuntary celibacy. But there will be a kind of transposition required, and the implications of removing the explicit element of voluntariness will require some thought.

I’m not posting this because I have any worked out theology of involuntary celibacy, though I will try to say more in future posts than I have said here. However, I sometimes think that identifying a particular goal can be helpful, even when there are still many mountains to climb and many rivers to cross before one gets there.

If we simply turn to the existing tradition of celibacy for guidance, we may find parts of it that seem irrelevant, or addressed to concerns very different from our own. On its own, this can be frustrating. However, if we recognize that we are explicitly engaged in the project of transposing a theology of voluntary celibacy into a different key, to be played by different instruments, we may find that we can more profitably make use of the existing tradition, and more rapidly adapt it to answer questions which are somewhat different, but still legitimate and important.

27 thoughts on “Seeds of celibacy

  1. I never found the ‘involuntary’ celibacy argument convincing since as far as I know homosexuality does not per se represent an impediment to a catholic marriage (I am not a canon lawyer, so I might be wrong and I would have to revise my view on this). So if a homosexual person can actually enter a valid marriage, that implies celibacy is not involuntary and there is no difference to a ‘normal’ person.

    Nevertheless I believe it would be an intersting undertaking to adapt the insights and wisdom existent about celibacy for different perspectives (the set of affected persons is probably smaller, but isn’t impotency fitting in the category eunuch by birth ?)

  2. Thomas, I am not sure what you mean? Are you suggesting that since gay Catholics can technically marry heterosexually that they are not involuntarily celibate? I find this to be very strange. Many gay people cannot physically carry out sexual relations with the opposite sex. In fact, one of my good friends is in a celibate marriage (much to her husband’s sorrow) because she is unable to have intercourse with him. She has even tried just for his sake, and she physically cannot. It would be like me asking you to have sex with your mother. I suppose technically you could try, but the physical revulsion would likely keep you from being able to do so. Also, gay men might not be able to maintain an erection in order to have sex.

    So I suppose those who have some bisexual tendencies might be able to pull off some kind of sexual relationship, but those who are exclusively gay would just end up in celibate marriages. That is indeed involuntary because many have begged God to give them the ability to have relations with the opposite sex to no avail.

    • If they are Catholic, and her husband was unaware of this going into the relationship, it is grounds for an annulment under canon law.

  3. Karen, labelling celibacy ‘involuntary’ in the case of homosexuals has been used to make a judgement about the ‘quality’ of the involved sacrifice, judging ‘voluntary’ celibacy to be of a ‘better’ quality. If I understand Ron correctly he points towards scripture indicating that such a judgement is not justified (it’s not the main point of his article, but at least it appears implied for me).

    I was trying to articulate a different point, namely that the application of this distinction to the question of homosexuality is not really useful, or at least consistent with church teaching on marriage. If homosexuality is no categorical impediment to marriage (I am not disputing that for some, probably many homosexuals sexual relations might not be feasible), it implies that celibacy in the case of homosexuality is indeed not per se ‘involuntary. A homosexual can indeed renounce marriage.

    What I am trying to do here is not advocating against furthering wisdom about celibacy based on ‘involuntary’ reasons (which I am strongly supporting), I am arguing against the use of this distinction as a criteria to judge the strength, or even validity, of the sacrifice involved in celibacy

  4. Thomas-I may not be understanding you correctly but it sounds like you are conflating marriage and celibacy issues. You write: “If homosexuality is no categorical impediment to marriage . . . it implies that celibacy in the case of homosexuality is indeed not per se ‘involuntary. A homosexual can indeed renounce marriage.” This still makes no sense to me. A straight person renouncing heterosexual marriage is in a completely different situation than a gay person renouncing heterosexual marriage.

  5. Karen, I am trying to get my head around this, so it’s not completely thought through from all sides. I basically argue that the church cannot use the distinction between voluntary and involuntary celibacy as an argument in connection with homosexuality if marriage is a possibility for a homosexual person. The existence of said possibility implies that celibacy is the same sacrifice for a straight and a homosexual person for whom marriage is an option.

    I am not denying that there is involuntary celibacy, I am denying that celibacy for a homosexual is always involuntary. It might be for a majority of homosexuals and it might be for a minority of heterosexuals, but I believe that this is enough to prohibit the automatic equation of homosexuality and involuntary as well as straight and voluntary. The voluntariness of celibacy depends on the individual, somebody’s sexual orientation might give an indication but not conclusive evidence

  6. Okay–thanks for the clarification. I guess, I am just not persuaded. The only way it would work in the sense you mean for most exclusively gay people would be if they were choosing voluntarily to say no to a gay marriage. Otherwise I just don’t see the voluntary element re: hetero marriage. I know far too many celibate gay folk who want desperately to marry heterosexually and simply cannot because there is no attraction. There is no choice in the matter. Thankfully the wise ones don’t marry and make some poor unsuspecting heterosexual suffer in a celibate marriage. But, I could concede to your point if you are referring to bisexuals who really can marry/consummate heterosexually (I don’t think you can refer to marriage without including the consummation of it).

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