The crisis in family life which has convulsed the West since the 1960s has meant that a good portion of the Church’s teaching mission over recent years has been dedicated to outlining a coherent and compelling vision of Christian marriage, and rightly so. But this should not lead Christians to downplay the nobility of the celibate life, which Christian tradition has always held in the highest regard. This is particularly important to bear in mind as the Church struggles with how best to help homosexual persons to holiness.
Aside from the obvious example of Jesus himself, St. Paul was the first to promote celibacy as a form of “undivided devotion to the Lord.” St. Paul wrote at a time before the existence of monasteries, and addresses himself to both sexes. He was not talking about priestly celibacy, or about the consecrated life. He was talking about the value of a celibate vocation lived out in the midst of the world.
The idea that homosexuals are “called” to celibacy sounds odd to many Christians today. We tend to associate celibacy with a conscious choice to forgo marriage. In other words, one can only really have a celibate vocation if one is first attracted to marriage, and later decides to renounce it as a possibility. Pope Benedict XVI expressed thoughts along these lines in Light of the World:
Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation. It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don't want to get married anyway.
Leaving aside any discussion about the suitability of homosexuals for priestly ministry, it must be pointed out that the choice-based view expressed here by Benedict is not the only way the Christian tradition has of thinking about the celibate life in general. Addressing women who knew they would never be able to marry because the lives of too many of their country’s men had been claimed by the Second World War, Pope Pius XII had the following to say in 1945:
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!
[But] 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.
For Pius XII, the “meaning” of celibacy lies not in our choice of a state of life, but in God’s choice of us. As a same-sex attracted Christian, the question of what I would like to choose is largely irrelevant. The important question is what God chooses for me. Celibacy, like marriage, requires consent—it cannot be enforced, but must be embraced in freedom. But the key to a right view of celibacy is not free choice, but free response: free and obedient response to the divine call.
This call may manifest itself in different ways. For many, the call will be felt as a gentle whisper in their ear as they prayerfully discern which state of life—out of a number for which they are suitable—they are called to. For others—as Pius XII points out—the divine call is discerned in and through the circumstances of one’s life, which often leave a person with little choice in the matter. But in both cases the vocation itself has the same dignity, provided only that it is embraced with the same generosity on the part of the person whom God calls.
It goes without saying, too, that the blessings attached to the celibate vocation—the opportunity to enjoy a deeper union in this life with Christ the Divine Bridegroom—are in principle open to all those who lead a chaste single life, no matter how they come to realize their vocation. This is an important point. Critics of the Church’s teaching often allege that it asks homosexuals to give up the possibility of intimate relationships in exchange for a life of misery and loneliness. However, when one considers that what is actually being offered in exchange is union with God through chastity, the deal begins to look slightly more attractive!
Sadly, churches are too often unwelcoming places for homosexuals. This should not be the case. Given the Church’s historically high regard for those who lead a chaste single life, it stands to reason that the Church ought to be the natural home of a group of people whom it calls to lead such a life on account of their sexual orientation. The Church is often quick to blame the secular media for misrepresenting its teachings and making it appear anti-gay. Though there is a kernel of truth in this, the bad news is that Catholics, in particular, largely have themselves to blame for being painted into a corner. Even tactful presentations of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality by orthodox speakers and writers often tend to bypass any positives that might be mentioned in favor of focusing solely on the wrongness of homosexual sex and gay marriage. The good news is it does not have to be this way. The Church in fact has a very special and positive message for homosexual people: “The master is here, and he is calling you.”
Aaron Taylor, a Ph.D. student in ethics at Boston College, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and from Heythrop College, University of London.
Melinda Selmys, “The Pastoral Response to Homosexuality”
Leonard Klein, “Hope and Homosexuality”
Joshua Gonnerman, “Why I Call Myself a Gay Christian”
Daniel Mattson, “Why I Don’t Call Myself a Gay Christian”
Joshua Gonnerman, “Born That Way?”
Joshua Gonnerman, “False Hope and Gay Conversion Therapy”
Wesley Hill, “Once More: On the Label ‘Gay Christian’”
Melinda Selmys, “How to Speak About Homosexuality”
Daniel Mattson, “Homosexual Orientation, or Disorientation?”
Joshua Gonnerman, “Catholic Teaching, Homosexuality, and Terminology”