The Celibacy Mandate

In our post addressing 7 Misconceptions about Celibacy, we highlighted the misconception that celibate people are only celibate because of oppressive, conservative religion. Unfortunately, the idea that Christianity in particular tries to suppress the sexuality of LGBT people has significant evidence in its favor.

Last week on Twitter, we saw a friend offer this tweet:

We know better than to consider this kind of biting comment an isolated instance. In too many Christian communities, insults directed at LGBT people are accepted as a part of Christian discourse. Many LGBT people feel as though they need to try and mimic the normative experience of heterosexual people before even setting foot in a church near them. Some “Christian” advocates will attend Gay Pride events to suggest that “God has a better way” where LGBT people can become straight or celibate. Many LGBT people (rightly) perceive that some conservative churches “reach out” to the LGBT community in order to encourage LGBT individuals to excise their sexualities.

Straight Christians will frequently quote Bible verses (and official Church documents, if applicable) that explicitly condemn homosexual acts. This kind of approach draws a line that an LGBT person can never pass over if that LGBT person wants to remain “acceptable” to the Church, and to God. In these contexts, celibacy can be experienced as an unfunded mandate where the LGBT person is left to his or her own devices to figure out how to live a celibate way of life. These contexts rarely provide a person with a positive definition of celibacy.

To say it very succinctly, we hate this kind of celibacy mandate.

To put a bit more flesh on our objection, we believe this kind of celibacy mandate prevents the Church from developing a framework for a life-giving, generous approach to celibacy outside of religious life. This celibacy mandate excuses the Church from all responsibility to help LGBT people integrate their sexualities within a broader, embodied sense of self. After all, the counsel for managing one’s sexuality boils down to, “Don’t have sex.” You can fit “Don’t have sex” 8 times within 1 tweet on Twitter. It is far too simplistic a message to be the sum total of all advice the Church has to offer an individual seeking life in Christ.

Another thing we have observed is that often, Christian communities telling LGBT people that they must be celibate have very underdeveloped views of both celibacy and marriage. In many of these communities, the vast majority of the congregation is happily heterosexually married with children. If statistics are to be believed, several of these families might be comprised of people who have remarried after securing a divorce. We would call these churches “American Dream” churches. In an “American Dream” church, marriage is frequently treated as a rite of passage: Boy meets Girl. Girl and Boy fall in love. Boy proposes to Girl. Girl (and Boy) plan wedding. Boy and Girl get married in some venue using a self-designed service presided over by a clergy person of their choice. Girl and Boy live happily ever after. When something important like your wedding is a necessary adult rite of passage, then it seems heartless and even cruel to deny anyone access to this kind of event.

We would rather be a part of a Church that encourages every person to find abundant life in Christ. We are grateful to be a part of a Christian tradition that has a rather clear theological vision for marriage. In our Christian tradition, it does not make a lot of sense to view marriage as a necessary rite of passage. At every parish we have attended, we see people of all ages actively trying to discern their vocation. We are blessed to know other people who think that God is not calling them to work out their salvation within the vocation of marriage.

It’s worth mentioning that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are frequently portrayed as issuing the celibacy mandate to all LGBT people. However, we think that the popular perception of these liturgical traditions overlooks a lot of how they present a theological vision of marriage and celibacy. We do agree that the liturgical churches could do a better job of presenting a more holistic view of their teachings on marriage and celibacy. And honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if LGBT Christians in some Catholic and Orthodox parishes experience a sense of an unfunded celibacy mandate within their local communities. We challenge those parishes to do better.

Consider the following scenario. You are a straight person. You have grown up all of your life with messages that in order to find yourself fully in Christ, you must get married. Failure to marry is evidence that you lack faith, are completely undesirable, and have no gifts to offer your community. You try to comply with the expectations, entering into various dating relationships, but nothing seems to work. Eventually, you reach an age at which your church offers various mixers so adults above a certain age can meet and greet. Pressure from your family mounts. Finally, they have no choice but inform you that you will be entering an arranged marriage in 3 months or face shunning from your faith community.

We know that scenario sounds nuts. It was supposed to sound nuts. But that’s how we imagine churches might behave if they issued a marriage mandate. Minus the bit about entering into an arranged marriage, we know several middle-aged Christians who are single who have felt a ton of pressure from their faith communities to get married. However, instead of presenting marriage as a mandate, many Christian communities spend time talking about what a marriage might look like, how God can bless people through marriage, and what the Church can do and is doing to support families. Christian churches are constantly describing marriage as a possibility for people in their congregation. The ideal of marriage is almost never presented as a mandate, a demand from a holy God, or an oppressive burden.

We think that many LGBT people encountering the Celibacy Mandate live that nightmare scenario as it relates to being celibate. What is most tragic, in our opinion, is that many Christian communities who believe that celibacy is the best vocational choice for LGBT people tend to avoid talking about celibacy as a possibility that can be absolutely life-giving.

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20 thoughts on “The Celibacy Mandate

  1. This just sounds like you can’t pick one thing or the other. Either celibacy is right or it isn’t. You have to take a side. I read about Side A and Side B. So are you Side A or Side B?

    • Celibacy is neither right nor wrong. It is a choice in singleness or in the context of a particular relationship. Interesting that if I had become a nun, as I expected I would at a much younger age, celibacy in the context of my marriage with Christ would have been part of my vows. Yet, in my earthly marriage my vows and everyone’s expectations are that celibacy is forbidden. That is crazy, as is the idea that celibacy is a mandate outside of marriage. At the risk of being slammed by some, I think we Christians really need to hear Paul when he advocates for those cho choose celibacy.

      • Thanks for your comment. We think that it’s so easy for American Christians to overlook Paul’s defense of the celibate vocation. So many people have chosen to embrace celibacy at different life stages that we absolutely agree with you that celibacy is a choice.

    • Hello Kay. We view both marriage and celibacy as mature vocations that can be entered into by adults. We think it to be manifestly inappropriate to force an person into a specific vocational choice. Before a person enters a marital or celibate vocation, he or she is single. We also believe it’s possible for a person to mature in faith as a single person. Vocational choices are influenced by a number of important factors that include, but are not limited to, one’s Christian tradition, one’s sense of an appropriate career pathway, one’s network of relational possibilities, and one’s economic circumstances.

      Regarding your question about Side A and Side B: we’d encourage you to review our About page. We have said the following, “You may have read elsewhere about the terms ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B.’ That’s not our lingo, that’s not our schtick, and you can find other places on the internet to engage in that great debate.” We will likely say more about why we avoid using the Side A/Side B language on our blog in a future post.

      As a final note, we’ve noted that you’ve commented several times on our blog with very pointed comments that show little effort to communicate respect for us. We appreciate all of our commenters who take our comment policy seriously.

  2. I thank you again, Sarah and Lindsey, for being vulnerable with your readers and explaining your thoughts and perceptions on celibacy. The keen insight which you possess continues to inform me. I am starting to discuss your story with other fellow seminarians with the hope of sustaining a dialogue with the church body of which I am a member of.

    • Hello Sergio, we are so profoundly encouraged that our blog has inspired you to start a broader dialogue. Please feel free to invite any of your fellow seminarians to join the ranks of our regular readers and to talk directly with us. May God give you wisdom as you undertake this work.

  3. Thank you for this post.

    I loved your phrase “unfunded celibacy mandate.” Growing up Catholic I knew what the Church taught, accepted it, and remained deeply closeted. That phrase describes my experience and the experiences of others I know who grew up Catholic and gay too well. In high school I was active in my parish’s youth group which was rather small and, therefore, intimate. Two of the guys were out and struggling with Church teaching. They ended up both being burned and leaving the Church. I sometimes wonder what the outcome would have been if there was anything in the Church for them. I grew up with a generation largely impacted by JP2. People talk(ed) about how “the Pope doesn’t hate sex, he loves it!” (It seems like) Married couples and those seeking marriage got the Theology of the Body, and everyone else was ignored.

    I think your concept of the positive definition of celibacy is a good place to begin. (I would probably add some sort of language about chastity/celibacy as gift-of-the-self Theology of the Body type of stuff.)

    I don’t know where I was exactly going with these things; I just really felt like I should share it. I think that one thing central to issues with the “Celibacy Mandate” is reaching teens and young adults… it is such a central and vulnerable time that needs more attention in regards to this issue. I think that the Christian Church as a whole pays a lot of attention to youth already, but I think that the LGBT community tends to be ignored in a lot of these. (Youth retreats end up having men/women’s sessions which focus on issues such as marriage, for example)

    Side note– (based on something said in a comment) How would you define a “mature vocation”?

    • This is a great observation. I think part of the problem is that the marital side of Theology of the Body has been plugged to death, but the implications of Theology of the Body for celibacy (which John Paul II discusses in some detail in the text) have been largely untapped. I think it would be really good for the Church if we could move that “God loves sex” discussion into a reflection on how God loves bodies and sexuality — and how celibacy is a manifestation of that love, not a denial of it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. We’re glad that you could relate to our discussion about the “unfunded celibacy mandate.”

      Relative to your query about a “mature vocation” We believe that adults enter into both the martial vocation and the celibate vocation. A person needs to be formed in order to embrace the demands of both these vocations. An idea that a person has a “default” celibate vocation is very much an oversimplification of singleness. We believe that the Church has a responsibility to help people grow towards their vocations.

  4. Thanks for this post. I think that presenting celibacy as something desirable rather than as a bitter pill that you must swallow — or else! — is seriously needed. I also think that the Church needs to have a better conversation about what people should do if they’ve sincerely tried celibacy and have found that it’s impossible. Several Church documents have alluded to the existence of such people, but then they just kind of reiterate the teaching about the morality of homosexual acts without providing useful guidance on how to navigate the hard cases. It kind of comes across as though the document was written by a committee and one of the committee members was really emphatic about the importance of acknowledging that some people just can’t do it (or at least it will be a long journey before they get to the point where they can…) and one of the other committee members was dead-set on making it clear that there is absolutely no wiggle room. But it means that in practice people end up doing the white-knuckle – fall down, have anonymous sex – go to confession – white-knuckle…circuit until they despair. I know that some spiritual directors will advise people in that position that finding a steady partner is more morally responsible than fantasizing about chastity while sleeping around — but a lot of people in the Church would see that advice as heresy. To me it seems that there’s a serious dereliction of pastoral responsibility here, and that it can cause more than just spiritual trauma; it can end up exposing people to STIs and to major psychological scars.

    • Melinda, your observations about the white knuckling are very apt. Lindsey has done a fair bit of reflecting on the challenge of drawing “the line” to define sex: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/the-challenge-of-drawing-the-line/ Appropriate pastoral care for the difficult cases is absolutely essential. However, in a climate where churches feel obligated to use the Celibacy Mandate as a way of defending their orthodoxy, we think that priests may feel like they have little choice other than continually spouting the “official” teaching on homosexual acts — much at the expense of how their broader Christian tradition might discuss chastity and sexuality.

  5. One nitpick: I think you’ve used the “LGBT” acronym without thinking much about the “B” part. As someone who is bisexual myself, I’ve never felt any traditional teaching as a celibacy mandate. It’s simply a limitation on which relationships I can pursue. That has its own implications, but it seems to me to be quite a bit different from the demands on lesbian and gay people.

    In some ways, this is like talking about “LGBT” people in ways that ignore the trans experience. That’s a mistake I’ve made far too often myself, but one I’m trying to be more cognizant of. I always find terminology to be trickier than I’d like.

    This isn’t to negate the thoughts on your post at all, but just something that came to my mind.

    • Hi Jeremy, thanks for your comment. We appreciate the chance to clarify why we use the LGBT acronym — and why we think it applies to the Celibacy Mandate.

      We’ve actually been very deliberate in our use of the LGBT acronym. Many people who find themselves outside the cisgender, heterosexual mainstream can be made to feel like they are sexual deviants who have no choice but to be celibate.

      Relative to the experience of bisexuals, several bisexual people face the stigma of being sex addicts who simply cannot make up their mind about which gender they want to be with. Additionally, if a bisexual person leans more towards a higher number on the Kinsey scale, then he or she might feel the celibacy mandate more strongly. Conversely if a bisexual person leans more towards a lower number on the Kinsey scale, then he or she might feel a particularly strong marriage mandate. Even if a bisexual person is equally attracted to both sexes, it is still possible that person might feel pressured into celibacy based on the idea that he or she must excise his or her sexuality. We’re glad that you yourself have never experienced the celibacy mandate, but we do know other bisexual people who have. Sarah knows a bisexual woman who married a man but was told she should not have married her husband until she could get rid of her same-sex attractions.

      Relative to the transgender experience, many conservative churches may default towards the celibacy mandate because that is how they advise gay and lesbian people. Moreover, transgender people might experience a greater celibacy mandate on the grounds that their gender non-conformity makes them ineligible to participate in reproduction.

      • Thanks for the response. Those are very good points. Not everyone’s experience is like mine.

        I did often experience the stigma of being deviant, but I guess it never affected me quite as “you have to be celibate” even though it was “there is something very wrong with you.”

        • We’d definitely agree that there are a lot of ways the conservative Church can cause LGBT people to feel shame. We’re sorry to hear about how you faced the stigma associated with “there is something very wrong with you.”

  6. I’m not sure where you ladies reside, but I’m interested if you would be interested/open to entering into a legal marriage. Or is that not even something that enters into your thought process about your relationship. I have many friends who feel very indifferent towards marriage. For me and the way I grew up (although this was my own conviction, not my parents, as they became Christians as adults and after they had lived together for several years and then got married), marriage was always a necessity for a sexual relationship. But do you still feel called towards marriage when sex isn’t a part of the relationship? I know that a piece of paper means very little towards having a commitment towards another person, but I’m just curious as to what your thoughts are in the role of marriage in a celibate relationship. I admit that most of your blog posts are “over my head” as I am in a traditional heterosexual marriage and am fairly new towards more of the “intricacies” of more non-traditional relationships. I’ve just never thought about them before. Not that I believe things are black and white—but over the past few years my eyes have really been opened to various types of relationships—not just gay or straight—but transgendered, sister wives, polyamorous, etc, etc… While I don’t really form a judgment on any of those relationships since I don’t think that is my place and it doesn’t matter what I think, I still have questions and want to learn more! Hope you don’t think I’m prying. Not my intention—you just happen to be the first of this type of non-traditional relationship that I have come across.

    • Hi Emily, thanks for your comment. One thing that seems to be true about LGBT Christians is that many of us have had to wrestle deeply with our faith, our sexuality, our understanding of marriage, and our vision for sexual ethics. We’ve been very blessed by sometimes holding a mirror for cisgender, heterosexual people to think more deeply about these issues themselves. Questions are always welcome in the comment box!

      Relative to your question about legal marriage, our post today actually addresses that very issue. We’d encourage you to have a read at: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/when-legal-recognition-matters/ and further questions are definitely welcome!

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