The folks over at A Queer Calling have an interesting article up today in which they deftly tackle several common misunderstandings about celibacy.
Among several errors they single out for deconstruction, there is this:
An argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy—the only option—is meaningless.”
This is a view I like to call grocery store celibacy, because the view of the Christian moral life it paints is one much like a grocery store. The more “choices” and “options” you have, and the more unhindered you are in being able to freely decide which option you want to choose from the smorgasbord on offer, the more moral value the choice you eventually make will have. The closer the Christian life comes to reflecting the economy of a consumerist society, the more Christian it is, allegedly.
As A Queer Calling points out, however, this view renders the lives of countless holy Christian men and women down the ages defective in moral worth:
To say that celibacy doesn’t matter if it’s the only choice available is to declare that thousands of people’s life experiences were meaningless. To these people we would ask: are you willing to suggest that there was no meaning to the celibate life of Hildegard of Bingen because her parents—not she herself—decided that she would become a nun? Are you willing to assert that because Hildegard didn’t choose her own way of life, she never experienced a sense of call to monasticism?
To this we might also add many of the marriages in Scripture, since marriage, too, is a vocation. The marriage of Mary and Joseph, for example, was probably an arranged marriage. That doesn’t mean that Christians have to approve of arranged marriages today, any more than we have to approve of people living without running water and rudimentary sanitation just because Mary and Joseph probably did so. But God’s call is capable of breaking into our human history regardless of the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can certainly debate the relative merits of one set of social and economic arrangements to another, and I for one would prefer to live in twenty-first century America than in first-century Palestine, but God is the Lord of all history and does not require a particular set of social and economic arrangements—like modern consumer capitalism—in order to make himself heard adequately.
Life circumstances which we consider unfortunate can even be the means through which God’s call is made manifest, as Pope Pius XII suggests in a 1945 allocution:
When one thinks of the women who voluntarily renounce matrimony in order to consecrate themselves to a life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity, immediately there comes to one’s lips a luminous word: vocation! … This vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse ways … The young Christian woman who remains unmarried in spite of her own desires may—if she firmly believes in the providence of the heavenly Father—recognize in life’s vicissitudes the voice of the master: Magister adest et vocat te—“the Master is at hand, and is calling you” … In the impossibility of matrimony, she discerns her vocation
What matters here is not choice but response—a response to the call of God, a response that can only be made when we prayerfully listen for the “voice of the master” speaking to us within our own history, and when we have a firm belief “in the providence of the heavenly Father.”
It’s worth pointing out that the view I’ve criticized here is not common only among Christians with a “liberal sexual ethic.” It’s also an argument I’ve heard from traditionalists. Someone might “struggle with same-sex attraction” all their lives. They might even struggle successfully. But such a struggle cannot be viewed as fidelity to a vocation because this would destroy the meaning of celibacy as a renunciation of the good of matrimony. If you aren’t attracted to marriage, you can’t “renounce” it, and therefore can’t really have a vocation to celibacy, or so the traditionalist argument goes.
Yet this view, too, is wrongheaded, because it perverts the traditional ordering of goods within Christian teaching that places celibacy above marriage. This teaching is a hard teaching to swallow today, even for many sincere and devout Christians, but it is the indisputable teaching of the New Testament and of almost the entire Christian tradition.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not claiming that celibate people are better or holier people than those who are not. No-one ever lives any vocation with perfect fidelity. Many celibates betray their vocations, and even when they don’t, what matters morally is fidelity to one’s own vocation, whatever that may be. However, as Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa notes in his excellent book “Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven,” in an eschatological rather than a moral sense, celibacy is in itself an objectively more perfect state than marriage because “it is more like definitive state towards which we are all journeying” in heaven.
It makes little sense, therefore, to claim that in order to follow the objectively higher calling of celibacy, one must first renounce the objectively lower calling of marriage. In no other sphere of life do Christians claim that in order to follow higher goods we must first feel an attraction to, and renounce, lower ones. We do not claim, for example, that a priestly vocation is invalid if the man in question has always wanted to be a priest and did not first make a handwringing renunciation of his boyhood dream of being a bricklayer.
None of what I have said pre-empts questions about sexual ethics. This isn’t an argument attempting to prove that all gay people should be celibate, and I am not saying that those who object to the teachings of the Church in this area cannot voice objections. To claim that God is more than capable of making his voice heard to gays and lesbians who follow a conservative sexual ethic is to defend God’s power and Sovereignty over history, not to defend the conservative sexual ethic (that is another argument altogether). But let’s at least take care to get celibacy right when we talk about celibacy. The orthodox Christian view of celibacy is not the grocery store view. The orthodox Christian view admits of only one kind of celibacy and that is celibacy propter regnum cælorum—“for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society. He can be followed on Twitter:@AyTay86.