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.