Celibacy and Healing

When I was an undergraduate, I read two of the most important ex-gay books of the time: Coming Out of Homosexuality by Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel, and Straight & Narrow? by Thomas Schmidt.

Coming out of Homosexuality was 208 pages long, and offered three chapters devoted to topics related to heterosexual dating and marriage. They then turned to the topic of those who remain single:

We have taken a detailed look in the past several chapters at different aspects of moving toward heterosexual relationships in terms of dating, engagement and marriage. This is an appropriate place to reaffirm the validity of being single.

The majority of former homosexuals are single, even those who have been out of same-sex immorality for many years. Some left homosexuality while in their late twenties or older and simply have not found a suitable potential spouse. Others have been married previously and hesitate to initiate a new marriage. Some are content in their singleness and feel no desire to begin dating. Whatever the reason, the Bible assures us that singleness is a positive thing; it should not cause us embarrassment or shame.

Although they recognized that the chapters on heterosexual dating were relevant only to a minority of “former homosexuals,” and that the majority of those who chose obedience to Christ would remain single, they devoted just 1 1/2 pages to issues specifically connected with singleness and celibacy (some content of the book, of course, was relevant to both those who are single and those who marry).

When I read the book as an undergraduate, I threw it across the room when I came to the end of the section on celibacy. This was, I realize now, a somewhat immature response. But it was very frustrating to discover that all they had to say about celibacy was found in a few platitudes. It was nice that they affirmed a single life, but they gave no help at all with the practical problems connected with celibacy that I had to deal with.

Schmidt’s Straight and Narrow was slightly better: he offered just over 3 pages addressed to those who remained celibate. And although he didn’t have much practical advice to offer either, he did include a sentence which told the reader where to look: “The monastic and priestly traditions of Christianity, both Roman and Orthodox, offer vast experience and literature on the gift and discipline of celibacy.” (Of course, this tradition is mostly about voluntary celibacy, and there is still a need to think about involuntary celibacy. See Seeds of Celibacy and The Gift of Celibacy for more on that topic.)

Taken together, the two books offered about 1800 words addressed directly to the majority of “former homosexuals” who would not marry. Several points were repeated in both books. In other words, between two of the most prominent ex-gay books of the 1990′s, you got about a couple of blog posts worth of discussion of celibacy, almost none of it directed to practical problems celibates face.

It is not enough to simply say gay sex is wrong, and to tell people to abstain. As Eve Tushnet writes, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” These books did have a positive message—if you had a vocation to marriage. But for the majority who were called to celibacy, they had little to offer.

Celibacy is difficult; in the monastic tradition, it is always connected with some form of community, with spiritual direction, and with disciplined prayer. At the same time, the monastic tradition is broad, and celibate community can take many forms.

In a culture like our own, which exalts sex and disparages celibacy, it is little surprise that many fail when they attempt celibacy without much support from the church, without clear models, and without practical advice in facing the challenges they face. But this may be less an indictment of celibacy, and more an indictment of the way that the ex-gay movement failed to take celibacy—which Davies and Rentzel admitted was the experience of the majority of their members—seriously, failed to seriously study the resources on celibacy available in the Christian tradition, and failed to collect and reflect on their pastoral experience with celibate members in a systematic and practical way.

One reason for this, I think, is that many Christians thought of marriage as an expression of divine healing, while celibacy was seen as merely settling for a fallen condition.

This is a serious mistake.

Celibacy is a high and difficult calling, and to live it well requires deep inner transformation. Spiritual friendship, too, requires an inner transformation that purifies the heart.

To pray for healing and to pray for orientation change are not identical. Paul says that though some of the Corinthians had engaged in various forms of sin, including homosexual activity, they were washed, sanctified, and justified. Some have used this as proof that God promises orientation change. But in the very next chapter, he praises celibacy as a higher calling—a better way of serving Christ—than marriage. If we are to “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” and to pray boldly for them, then there surely is nothing amiss if we pray boldly for this gift.

To live celibacy well requires in some ways a deeper healing, and a more dramatic inner transformation than opposite sex marriage would require. Although our pursuit of chastity—whether in marriage or in single life—begins with difficult self-denial, and often involves ongoing seasons of deep struggle, we shouldn’t think of celibacy primarily as a “booby prize”: the consolation given to the losers whose prayers for “healing” (understood solely in terms of orientation change) go unanswered. Nor should we view the sometimes gradual but resolute approach to Christian perfection in the life of those whose orientation has not changed as evidence that God has not healed. To do so involves a radical misunderstanding of vocation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.

18 thoughts on “Celibacy and Healing

  1. Hello, my name is Matt, and this is my first time, commenting on this blog. I want to state up front, that I grew up with the beginning of the “ex-gay” movement. I met many of the early leaders, including, Bob Davies, whose wife, was a personal friend of my Mom’s. To be fair to Bob and Lori, in the day that they wrote, the theology of singleness, was in it’s infancy. Bob was the first president of a now defunct organization, Exodus International; then located in Seattle. Bob has stated to me, that if he were writing today, he would have expanded and clarified, on the topic of being celibate. Bob has not been part of the “ex-gay” movement for many years. When Exodus moved to it’s location in Florida, Bob stepped out and away. Lori, I believe, continued to write, but, even she stepped out and away, when the ministry she was involved with, shut down. I have a collection of many of the original books by “ex-gay” authors. Many of them I met, as I was on staff with one of these “ex-gay” ministries. I know that there were a lot of good intentions; but as we know, the “road to hell, is paved with good intentions.” I do not believe that the Church in general, has really done a good job on the issue of celibacy, as a gift to be embraced; rather than shunned. Of course, I have known many pastors (including Jesuits), who do know what to do with single people. Singles ministries, tended to be run as part of parachurch organizations. Being gay, was never really addressed in many single conventions, I went to. “We” have not arrived. For many of us, we are still on a journey; a pilgrimage. I continue today, hearing well known speakers, address marriage as the only state of being in sexuality. I do not hesitate and speak out; to these well meaning individuals, who are married; sexually satisfying their needs; unable to comprehend those who are not. Continue to speak out. Continue to reach out to others, and encourage them to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

  2. Consider The Golden Rule: We do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Put all the religious dogma and ritual aside, and this is what our laws boil down to. We don’t lie or bear false witness because we won’t want people to lie to us. We don’t steal from other people because we do not want people stealing from us. We don’t betray the trust of our spouses because we wouldn’t want them doing the same to us. Same goes for killing and a variety of other “bad” behaviors.

    And yet somehow there seems to be this sheepish adherence to a double standard for Gay and Straight people. If you’re Straight, it’s all so wonderful to be able to find a compatible person of the opposite sex, court and get engaged and marry and live happily ever after. But if you’re Gay, all of that is completely out of the question. Don’t even bother trying to find a compatible person. Lesbians and Gay men are precluded from any hope for romance or commitment. Gay people are simply told: “Gosh, sorry about that. You make us uncomfortable; acknowledging your existence means we might have to revise what we’ve been teaching all these years – meaning, Whoops! No infallible Magisterium or “literal” Bible… so you’ll just have to sacrifice your life and any hope of finding somebody to love. Tough luck, kid. God said it, I don’t necessarily understand it, but there it is.” How could this be considered a good value judgment?

    Fortunately, the reason increasing numbers of Americans support marriage equality is because they have learned to make better value judgments. The reason couples choose to marry is to make a solemn declaration before friends and family members that they wish to make a commitment to one another’s happiness, health, and well-being, to the exclusion of all others. Those friends and family members will subsequently act as a force of encouragement for that couple to hold fast to their vows. THAT’S what makes marriage a good thing, whether the couple in question is Straight OR Gay.

  3. Ron, you write: “Celibacy is a high and difficult calling, and to live it well requires deep inner transformation.”

    That is true, but I also think for celibacy to be achievable for most people it requires external reinforcement. Individual resource is not sufficient. Most cultures have understood this throughout history–thus, arranged marriages, greater separation of the sexes socially, etc. I am not suggesting that all of these former ways of handling sexuality are the best. But at the very least they were not naive about the power of sexuality that is so common today. They understood that the whole community and social structure needed to provide reinforcement to make chastity possible.

    I don’t think we will see much improvement at all in the chastity success rates for gay or straight until the Church develops and promotes a new social system that provides adequate external reinforcement. And by that I don’t just mean community in the sense that, for example, the celibate person has to call their support person when they are struggling–as that still requires individual to take the initiative to reach out and get the help needed. Rather I am referring to external reinforcement that are operative for when a person does not have the inner resources to resist or initiate getting help. Such external reinforcements in that past have included multiple generations living in one home rather than people living alone in an apartment, (hard to bring someone home when mom dad and grandparents are there, etc). I don’t know what all these external reinforcements would be. But I think we need to have those conversations. Expecting deep inner transformation alone to carry the day is, ultimately, I believe going to disappoint for the majority.

  4. Karen, I agree with you.

    “Celibacy is difficult; in the monastic tradition, it is always connected with some form of community, with spiritual direction, and with disciplined prayer. At the same time, the monastic tradition is broad, and celibate community can take many forms.”

    “In a culture like our own, which exalts sex and disparages celibacy, it is little surprise that many fail when they attempt celibacy without much support from the church, without clear models, and without practical advice in facing the challenges they face.”

  5. Ron–I would be interested in any thoughts you have about what could be done. Its something I am thinking through. Sometimes it seems hopeless to change entire systems. But I suppose reform has to start somewhere. Some people could join an order, but that wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for everyone. Any thoughts on what can be done to create these external structures and what those structures would be?

  6. I am not Ron, but it seems to me that community, in the sense of intentional community, people living their lives together with others who are significant parts of their lives, can be a boon in that department.

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