What Classic, Orthodox Celibacy Isn’t

I’m just back from a studium with a brilliant group of (largely) gay Catholics (about which I’ll say more later—watch this space, as they say), and one of the papers featured a paragraph that might be considerably modified in its final published version. Not wanting to lose the original, I asked the author—Christopher Roberts, whose book you should read!—if I could post it here at Spiritual Friendship, and he agreed. Here’s what he wrote about singleness and celibacy:

If we follow the tradition’s logic, celibacy cannot be a synonym for singleness. Classic, orthodox celibacy is not a solitary priest rattling around in an oversized rectory, or an isolated yuppie in a high rise apartment building a profile on an internet dating site, or a gay person toughing it out solo at Christmastime. All these are modern day tragedies, the kind of things which deserve compassion but which cannot be normative. Classic, orthodox celibacy is rather a way of enabling us to be present to one another, free of concupiscence and free of the pressures arising when we audition for mates—one might even call it a gratuitous presence. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine and his friends forming reading groups and monasteries after their joint conversion. Classic, orthodox celibacy is Augustine insisting that virgins cannot ground their vocation in any disdain for marriage, but rather base their vocation in longing for the heavenly social life. Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. Classic, orthodox celibates are the monks, nuns, and consecrated laity whose continence and discipline sets them free for high adventure in contemplation or service.

This, it seems to me, is exactly what I need to hear, even if (at present) I haven’t discerned a call to join a religious order.

And it reminds of something Karen Keen said recently in an email to me:

When Christians sell books and preach sermons encouraging non-married people to embrace their “singleness” as a blessing, we are promoting the destructive effects of the sexual revolution. “Singleness” as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case, for example, with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died (followers who would have never left off following him). His mother and brothers were also still involved in his life and are often mentioned. Jesus’ mother was there at his darkest hour when he died. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.

If we’re thinking that modern Western “singleness” is the same as historic Christian celibacy, or—conversely—if we’re thinking that lay, parish celibacy, which many of us are hoping to live into, is simply equivalent to modern “singleness,” then we are, as the kids say, doing it wrong.

When I think about my own loneliness and the isolation of many other gay Christians I know, and when I think what can be done about it, I find myself playing with that great line from G. K. Chesterton: “The practice of humane, communal, parish celibacy-and-friendship has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” What would it look like, today, to try it?

28 thoughts on “What Classic, Orthodox Celibacy Isn’t

  1. Not to sound cynical, but in all honesty, trying to turn modern-day singleness into the classic orthodox celibacy outlined above, seems to me to be a task set to failure; like trying to contain the seas in a bucket.

    Outside of a religious order, or monastic community of some kind, it just seems like the odds are against us. Not only is society in general structurally opposed to it, but even we as Christians are weak, frail, humans who, if I’m honest, don’t have the imaginations nor the will-power to achieve it.

    I know this is prophet of doom kind of commentary – but based on my personal experience, my gut feeling is that it ain’t gonna happen. At least not anytime soon.

    I realise that this makes me sound pretty jaded, so I’m going to add a major disclaimer: that’s not to say that it isn’t a wonderful vision, and that I desperately long for something like it. (And I think “vision” is the right word – for when you read about the saints in Late Antiquity and their sexual renunciation, in Peter Brown’s book for example, you get the sense that they had such an urgent vision of the kingdom of Heaven and that they were in the last days, and also that their every-action mattered in cosmological terms, that acts of martyrdom or sexual renunciation almost came naturally to them. Perhaps that’s an overly nostalgic reading of the past though. It just seems to me sometimes that we’ve lost that zeal in modern-day Christendom. Maybe we will “get there” eventually – and maybe Tolkien is right, that its going to take the small, everyday acts to achieve it… Who knows? For now I remain a cynic.

  2. ~Classic, orthodox celibates are the adopted aunts and uncles of a generous, hospitable household, or the adults in a parish who collaborate in works of mercy and the catechesis of children who aren’t theirs. ~

    In other words, take the short stick that is your lot in life gay person, and enjoy the charity of the straight people you idolize.

    Wesley, how on earth could something like this be internalized without first institutionalizing the self-deprecation that spawns it?

      • Maybe because unless the household consists of a gay man and a lesbian, who are married to each other, the other options are either not sustainable or are risky. To have a group of gay people living together risks (some of) them falling in love with each other.

  3. Wes

    A very encouraging post. Thanks for sharing it. It definitely sounds hard, and within my protestant tradition there doesn’t seem to be a lot of groundwork laid (or maybe laid in years past but forgotten?) for encouraging and supporting this, but it seems very right.

    There has to be a place for both those who are married and those who have chosen celibacy to be joined together as one family. That place should be the church. And in response to Anon2478, how can those of us who have a wife and children pretend we have neither? as our family joins in friendship our single brothers and sisters in the church, should I refrain from having them be involved my my family life so as not to offend or be idolized?

    I want this to work; “this” being the joining together of singles and couples in friendship and devotion to each other in Christian friendship. I don’t know how to do it very well, but I am open to learn. I like what I am hearing. Keep up the provocative posts.

  4. Every revolution has to start somewhere. The odds definitely seem stacked against us, but I don’t think its impossible. The loss of understanding of kinship networks is fairly new and those changes were unfathomable at one time. Yet people’s perceptions changed–and they can change again. I am still trying to figure this out in my own life so I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things I am pondering:

    1. Re-integrating into existing biological kinship networks. This is the place to start. In previous times unmarried people did not go off and get their own apartments–extended family lived together. Some cultural groups in America still do this. For example, I used to live next door to two families from El Salvador. They all pooled their money together to buy a house– 12 people living in a 4 bedroom home. It was mult-generational. We need this kind of reintegration for the sake of our elderly too since most elderly people will become unmarried again. It is a horror in our country how we treat the elderly and its in large part to the disintegration of kinship networks.

    So, I think the first place to start is to have conversations with biological family–siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, parents–it could be any number of biological relations who might be open to re-integrating you into the family home. This might seem awkward, depending on your family/relatives because our culture encourages the division of kinship, but I think we should start having these conversations and talking with family members about our needs and concerns. We need to start encouraging pastors to consider the restoration of kinship networks as an important part of the mission of the Church. Valuing “family” does not mean just valuing “one man one woman.” Valuing family means valuing the whole kinship network. There are plenty of books in Christian bookstores on family–let’s start writing and adding more on kinship and begin to put the idea in people’s heads that this is an important part of Christian spirituality. It involves caring for the elderly well, being good stewards with our finances/resources (instead of each person having to own and use their own individual everything), changing the culture of sexual activity that is the result of people moving into their own individual apartment, integrating unmarried people into family, etc etc.

    2. If re-integration into biological family is not possible because of an abusive situation or family members do not want to embrace extended kinship as a principle of sharing daily life, then one has to look at the possibility of other kinship contexts. These might include:

    a. religious order

    b. permanent (NOT temporal) intentional community. This is harder to come by since most intentional communities are made up of young folk passing through. But one example of an intentional community that has had longevity is the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina which was founded by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. What makes this community more stable is that they have a philosophy of being rooted to a neighborhood (see his book “Wisdom of Stability”). In other words, people are not just passing through. People are committing to living in and investing in that neighborhood. It is also a mixture of both married and singles etc.

    c. adoption. I am not sure what the legal situation is for adopting an adult, but at the very least a ceremony could be done. Adoption would mean integrating into someone else’s kinship network. Being adopted as a sibling or adult child or whatever by people that you have formed a kindred connection with and who share the values of kinship networks and want to adopt you into their daily shared life. This may become more possible if a culture in the church can develop that values extended kinship. For example, it would not be so strange to have an unmarried adopted person living with a family anymore than it would have been strange at one time for various married/unmarried family members to live together under one roof (or like my El Salvadoran neighbors).

    d. platonic partnership. This will depend on a person’s own convictions. I understand some people do not feel comfortable forming a platonic partnership. But I do believe this is an option if its a healthy relationship. I believe in same-sex platonic partnerships. But, I also think that an opposite sex platonic partnership can be considered as well.

    I also think that a platonic partnership can be formed with someone who is straight–but this is more challenging because that person might end up wanting to be in a regular marriage at some point. There is also the connotation of adelphopoiesis (like making a blood brother) that could have a slightly different nuance than a partnership.

    I do think the burden of change lies in our hands. That means I am the one that has to be proactive to have conversations (perhaps awkward ones at first) with biological family. It means I have to take initiative to write and speak and talk to introduce the value of extended kinship networks back into our vocabulary and consciousness. It means I have to development friendship and relationship with people whom I might form community with or investigate religious orders, etc etc. But I do think that this is possible. I hope we can begin having more conversations on kinship to brainstorm these ideas together and begin promoting these ideas. Cultural change always starts somewhere. And believe me, more than just celibate gays badly need the restoration of extended kinship networks. More people in America are complaining of loneliness than ever before. More people are living alone than at any other time in history.

    • PS: one qualification about religious orders. Make sure it is one that actually values community. There are some orders–like the Jesuits where you don’t live in a stable community. You are off in different directions and moving around. You might move from community to community. But sometimes people in orders end up living alone too. I know a Sister in an order who doesn’t desire to live alone but that is her circumstance. I would say the orders that are not cloistered are more likely to be less stable communities since their missional drive sends them in different directions. Also, I know some people who have left religious orders because they found them to be lonely places. Some communities can be stoic. So, picking the right community, the right order becomes important. A religious order itself is not by virtue of being a religious order necessarily community.

    • Thanks for your comments Karen. I found them very helpful – much food for thought!

      One thing I want to say though, trying to re-integrate into various kinship bonds could have the averse effect of creating more isolation – especially in terms of relationships people have with society at large, and particularly with non-Christian relationships, who, no doubt, would view the arrangement with suspicion.

      I think it would be more than just “awkward” as you say.

      • Hi Laden-heart–I am puzzled as to why non-Christians would view strong family relationships as odd? No more odd, I suppose that those of their Hispanic friends or Indian friends or El Savadorian friends,, for example, who still retain strong kinship networks. But maybe you mean more the intentional community or platonic partnerships? There are non-Christian intentional communities that exist–so it would depend on other factors than religion on that front. But I do think platonic partnerships would be difficult for most people–Christian or non-Christian to understand. But honestly, I don’t think that is a big deal unless one is overly concerned about what other people think. Some people think interracial couples are odd too–certainly in times past and those people had to deal with some flak. But that didn’t stop them from having them simply because most people didn’t understand them.

      • PS–I should add that even platonic relationships are not unheard of. There is an organization that helps to match platonic partners–mostly straight people who, for whatever reason (e.g. disability etc) are not able to have or don’t want sexual relations. See here: https://www.platonicpartners.co.uk/

  5. Y’all, I can’t stop thinking about how much my family of soon-to-be-six would benefit from having an adopted uncle/aunt/best friend. To have someone willing to come into our house and tell me what’s going on in the outside world, to share snuggles with my kids…this would be a huge blessing to us. We don’t live around our family, and my husband is in campus ministry and so is gone lots of evenings…some days the thoughts of dressing and wrestling two little boys into car seats while I’m 20+ weeks pregnant is overwhelming…which means I can go days without seeing an adult besides my tired husband or the teachers at my daughter’s school and oh yeah, the folks I see at church while I swivel my head constantly to make sure my kids are not running around in the parking lot.

    And what a blessing to our children (and the students we do ministry with) to see someone faithfully pursuing this particular calling from God.

    I have to warn you, though, my 16 month old likes to give kisses the most when his nose is snotty.

    But seriously. The benefit/blessing of being adopted into a family unit would not only be on the adoptee’s side.

      • I second Julie’s comment, ehubb! This truly is the meaning of “family” and “community”, isn’t it – everyone pitching in, whatever their circumstance, to love and serve each other however they can, all equally important and valuable and gifted in their own way.

  6. Hey Karen K, the website doesn’t seem to let me reply to your reply, so I hope you get this.

    I take ALL your points – and agree with them.

    You say, “I don’t think that is a big deal unless one is overly concerned about what other people think” – I guess the thing is that I *do* care what other people think. And on a number of levels.

    I’ve had enough stigmatization my whole life so far for being gay and Christian – and mainly for the sake of my emotional and spiritual health and well-being, I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any more.

    Also, I care what people think in terms of outsiders looking in – and wanting very much to be a means of grace to them (esp. my non-Christian friends, colleagues etc.). I know the standard argument would go something like, yes, while at first they might see it as odd, ultimately your radical discipleship will make the Gospel dazzle in their eyes. I’m not so sure I buy that.

    I *really* appreciate your concrete comments though. They are SO so needed in this conversation!

    • Ladenheart–I can totally understand not wanting to deal with more stigmatization. I could see that happening more with a platonic partnership (although the details of such a relationship don’t necessarily have to be discussed–it could just look like living with a best friend to those on the outside). And there is certainly potential concerns if one is in ministry. That is something that I think about. Even though I support platonic partnerships I would only want to do it if it didn’t inhibit ministry–more so within the Church as they would have more of a problem with something that might seem like a gay partnership. Although I haven’t ruled it out for myself.

      But in terms of intentional community I really think people–non Christian and Christian alike are so lonely and craving community that we really have something to offer here. I can think of something along the lines of a “hospitality house” where people know they can come over and enjoy some good food and fellowship, even stay the night if they are passing through town. Etc.

  7. Who in the world thinks that modern singleness is defined by living alone – by which I mean neglecting proper emotional intimacy, not simply “having my own place to live” – and not being an active, vital part of the Christian family?

    I’m 32, single, involved in my church, close to my family, and blessed by friends. Neither I, nor my family, nor my church consider alienation to be essential to singleness. Neither do I think that such alienation is restricted to singles: plenty of married people are quite alone, emotionally and spiritually, and that’s unhealthy for anyone. To be single is to be unmarried, plain and simple: what you do with that can be according to God’s will or against it.

    (I am a Protestant of Anabaptist extraction, in case that matters.)

    • I certainly don’t think it has to lead to alienation, but it can for a lot of people. You are very fortunate you have such good community. I only see biological family maybe once a year since we live in different States. I have good friends, but that is not the same as shared household. There is a difference between hanging out with friends for dinner once a week and actually sharing a household with family that you go through life with (and not just serial roommates/friends). Everyone is different, but what I am craving is more than just friendship (which I do have) but actual kinship. People living outside of shared daily life with family is a very modern phenomenon and quite dysfunctional in my opinion. A symptom of fragmentation. The research suggests that there are some serious social effects that are occurring from this kind of fragmentation.

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  9. This is a huge issue for hetero long-term singles. Yes, there are different nuances if you’re open to marriage (as I am), but when you’ve passed 40, hope doesn’t equal expectation. I have roommates, but they tend to get married and rotate through annually (which, delightful though they be, gets exhausting). This depth of connection is very, very hard in our culture – secular or Christian.

    • I hear you, @jenniferellen14! I’m a single, straight Christian woman and Wesley’s posts are always so encouraging and thought-provoking to me. He has shown me how much I have in common with my gay brothers and sisters in Christ and how we can encourage each other. I can’t wait to read his next book. His pursuit of celibacy and friendship helps me a lot.

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  11. I really enjoyed this article Wesley Hill, thanks so much for posting because I feel like this is so important for people to here and imitate, and that there is an imperative for us to build up community right away if we are serious about this teaching in the Christian churches.

  12. I do believe that my calling is to remain single and devote myself to crafting great and beautiful artistic works. I have hoped that sometime in the future I could live in some household with other people and do my share to support them even as I work on my art. Perhaps you could all pray that I might find such a life?

  13. I just read a book that ended with a chapter emphasizing the importance of restoring a modern understanding of celibacy to a way of life that is recognized for all the unique richness that it offers. I really love this post, thank you for sharing.

  14. Pingback: Defining Marriage Isn’t Defending Marriage | Intercollegiate Review

  15. I absolutely love the comments in this feed! Karen K, you have given me so many things to think about! I have three children, two of which are now teenagers. We were just talking with them the other night about how our society expects people to grow up, move far away, and have a life very separate from their families. My kids are Christians and are seeking God about their futures, but both seemed relieved that our family unit doesn’t end when they turn 18. But even more than that, as I was reading the comments in this feed, I kept thinking about the scripture that talks about singles being brought into families? (Can’t remember the exact verse or even book of the Bible). This makes me want to do a study on ancient Jewish communities and how they possibly might have integrated this principle into their lives. I love the idea of the church being a place where singles and marrieds integrate into one another’s lives in a very real way. My head is literally spinning with ideas. And thanks, Wes, for getting such a great conversation started! 🙂

  16. The concern that I have with Roberts’ defence of ‘classic, orthodox celibacy’ is that it’s essentially grounded in a late antiquity Augustinian model coupled with Keen’s critique of singleness which is of course the reality for many American/ UK sexual minorities living out a sexual ethic of abstinent celibacy.

    It is my belief that civil states of life (e.g. civil partnerships or same-sex marriage) provide one of the single best forums for non-heterosexual Christian folk to live out celibate lives in committed partnership: it enables a shared life of faith; it binds kinship and protects family life: and it encourages individuals to love.

    The argument that I am making is that without a convincing model of celibate life that speaks to men and women in the twenty first century and especially those in non-privileged circumstances (e.g. those without access to intellectual circles; those from broken homes; and those alienated in their parish) then we need to think seriously about how civil states of life might provide real and meaningful forums for Christian folk who are living out a sexual ethic of abstinent celibacy.

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