Last week I spoke at the “Q Commons” gathering sponsored by Q Ideas, held at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Q Ideas is interested in promoting Christian living for the “common good,” and so, when they asked me to talk about being celibate, I opted for a straightforward title: “Celibacy for the Common Good.”
My main point is that we misunderstand celibacy if we think of it as a willpower-fueled project of self-improvement. Of course celibacy involves intense self-discipline and self-control, but it’s fundamentally for others—for love. As James Martin, SJ put it several years ago in the New York Times:
Celibacy is not only an ancient tradition of asceticism, but more important, it is an ancient tradition of love. Celibacy is, in short, about loving others. Those who opt for celibacy… choose it as a manner of loving many people deeply, in a way that they would be unable to if they were in a single relationship.
But how does celibacy achieve that goal? How does it actually build up communities and relationships, rather than lapse into navel-gazing?
In my talk, I suggested three ways that celibacy is for “the common good.” First, celibacy makes it clear that marriage is a gift and a calling, not a right or a guarantee that we must demand or insist on. You can see this idea adumbrated in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19. When he’s asked about divorce, he forbids it, citing God’s original creative design for a lifelong marital covenant (verses 4-6). His disciples immediately recognize what a high standard this is—how impossible it can seem to fulfill those kind of vows—and so they suggest that perhaps opting out of marriage is preferable. And Jesus replies, “Not everyone can accept this teaching.” There is exegetical debate about how to construe that answer. Is Jesus saying not everyone can accept marriage (verses 4-9), or is he pointing ahead to what he says next, namely, that not everyone can accept celibacy (verses 10-12)? Either way, the same point emerges—namely, that both marriage and celibacy are callings, invitations, or vocations. They’re not things that God owes anyone.
The new preparatory catechism for the coming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this year, Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, makes this point especially well:
The Church offers marriage as a vocation, a possibility; it therefore cannot be a law or requirement for a flourishing Catholic life. It follows, then, that celibacy needs to exist in the Church’s social life in order for marriage to be a matter of freedom rather than compulsion. Celibacy is the alternative if there is indeed more than one way to order one’s sexual life, one’s maleness or femaleness, to heaven.
So, when people practice celibacy, they serve as visible, tangible reminders in the church of the gift-character of marriage. Marriage is a grace. It is a discipline God calls some Christians—most Christians, as it happens—into. And by living an abstinent life, celibates can build up the common good by reminding the church of that fact.
Second, in my talk I suggested that celibacy underscores the sacredness and dignity of marriage. When a celibate person voluntarily foregoes sexual intimacy, they are indirectly pointing to the fact that there is a place where sexual expression is appropriate and necessary. In a roundabout way, they are doing what Hebrews 13:4 commands: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” Again, to quote Love is Our Mission,
Celibacy and marriage are complementary vocations because they both proclaim that sexual intimacy cannot be an audition. Both celibates and married persons respect the structure of covenant love and avoid “trial” or conditional intimacy. Both celibacy and marriage reject sex in the context of what Pope Francis called the “throwaway culture.” Both celibacy and marriage reject sexual relationships premised merely on satisfying erotic desire.
And in that way, in addition to reinforcing their own dignity, celibate people undergird and buttress the dignity of marriage. By refusing sexual intimacy outside the marital bond, they show how crucial that bond really is.
Third and finally, I suggested that celibacy is an important reminder that love isn’t reducible to what we do in bed or over a candlelit table for two. It is a reminder that love exceeds the boundaries of the nuclear family. Celibacy is not about a heroic feat of willpower. It’s about giving up one way of expressing love in order to be able to love widely, profligately, indiscriminately. It’s about foregoing a spouse in order to love a community. It’s about giving up the possibility of children in order to become a spiritual father or mother in the family called “church.” It’s about being a little less entangled in the life of the world in order to be a little more free to celebrate the coming kingdom of God, in which none of us will be married and all of us will be spiritual friends with everyone else in the new creation that God will usher in. In the words of Ronald Rolheiser, “Celibacy, if properly lived, can be an important way to keep alive, visible and in the flesh, that part of the incarnation which tells us that when one is speaking of love, the human heart is the central organ.”
Or, as Eve Tushnet has put it,
We [celibate gay Christians] offer witness that friendship, “chosen family,” intentional community life, and service to those in need are forms of real and sacrificial love which can shape a life as decisively as marriage and parenthood—if we let them. We offer hope that one day our churches and our communities will honor devoted friendship, extended family such as godparents, and lives of service. These are forms of love the Christian churches once honored publicly as part of the structure of society. Instead of maintaining this honor, we narrowed the public, “adult” forms of love down to the nuclear family and eventually the postnuclear family. I hope that by exploring our vocations, celibate gay Christians can suggest that there is more than one way to make a life filled with love. This witness will, of course, be relevant not only to our small subgroup, but to all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs about sexuality.
In these ways, and in many others besides, celibacy is indeed pro-love. It can contribute to the common good of our parishes, communities, and cities.