Is celibacy the same as singleness?

Continually, we interact with people who posit that the idea of gay Christians being called to celibacy is absolute madness. Arguably, the most common objection centers upon the cruelty of consigning LGBT Christians to lives of singleness that are characterized by loneliness and an absence of any intimate connections. Yet this objection conflates celibacy and singleness and makes negative assumptions about both.

We think this conflation comes as people define celibacy as “not marriage.” If you’re not married, then you’re single. Therefore, since celibate people do not enter into sacramental marriages, all celibate people are single. Our culture values using the presence or absence of marriage as a way to define a person’s state in life. Many people regard “getting married” as an essential coming of age ritual that marks a person’s ascendence into adulthood. Because of this, people often see singleness as a temporary state, and since most celibates are single by societal standards it gets assumed that celibates are isolated people who are missing out on an important part of adult life. Taking some time to look in the thesaurus, single has synonyms of “individual, lone, separate, simple, isolated, separated, and solitary.” There is a reasonable amount of positive associations too (original, distinguished, undivided, and unique), but in our experience, people dominantly focus on how living a celibate life features an almost definitional struggle against loneliness.

In the modern world, we’ve lost a sense of vocational diversity. Within many Christian traditions, celibacy has all but disappeared. For those traditions that still preserve a sense of celibacy as a vocation, celibacy is often tied to the priesthood or joining a monastery. Marital imagery dominates discussions of the monastic discernment process. When a person begins visiting a monastery regularly, people will speak as though the individual is dating the monastery. Becoming formal novice at a monastery is regarded as the engagement period before one takes vows to be “married” to the Church. This focus on marriage as a formal commitment overshadows the communal reality of joining a monastery. Monastics do not enter a random cloud of every person called a monastic; monastics join the life of a particular community, entering into a web of diverse relationships with particular people. As arguably the oldest expression of Christian celibate vocation, monastics live their lives richly connected to one another in community. Many monastics we know see themselves as richly connected to the world through their intercessions.

Focusing so much on marriage vs. singleness as a dichotomy seems to place relationships in a hierarchy. At the top is one’s marital relationship. Friends and acquaintances occupy second and third place. For people who view relationships this way, to forgo marriage requires a massive sacrifice as one is expected to give up not only a hypothetical spouse, but also partnership, companionship, intimacy, and even love itself. Furthermore, unmarried people are encouraged to explore virtually all opposite-sex relationships with any emotional depth to discern the “marriage potential.” With such a cultural emphasis on marriage, it’s not terribly surprising that relationships between sexually abstinent people are devalued and dismissed as to their ability to offer partnership, companionship, intimacy, and love.

We’d like to state again that we regard celibacy as a mature vocational pathway that people enter rather than a default state of life that unmarried people live because they “can’t” marry for whatever reason. Our experience suggests that celibacy is most sustainably lived in an intimate community where members share life with one another. There’s a reason why monasteries have been an enduring expression of how one can live out a celibate life. Our own celibate vocations opened up to each of us fully after we started exploring the possibility of sharing life together. We’d also contend that celibate people living their lives as single in the world develop a knack for finding a meaningful community of like-minded people along professional, personal, and affective lines.

Lindsey has been actively cultivating a celibate vocation for years. While Lindsey’s discernment began in the context of a celibate relationship, the bulk of Lindsey’s learning came as Lindsey lived as a single person in the world. Lindsey sought out meaningful relationships in diverse places. Over time, Lindsey developed a sense that some friendships are “singular friendships,” that is to say that these friendships exist in a category of 1. Lindsey was amazed constantly by the depth within these friendships and the uniqueness of each friendship, even one to another. By the time the two of us met, Lindsey had four singular friendships, all of which continue to this day.

As a final thought, we think it valuable to note that historically celibate vocations have had tremendous diversity. Celibate people are not easily categorized by black-and-white thinking. For every person who has lived a celibate life in a monastery, an untold number of people have lived celibate lives in the world. Some celibates live alone as hermits while others live in large communities. There are also plenty of celibate people who live in small groups. Christian traditions have affirmed value in a celibate vocation by blessing people as priests, consecrated religious, consecrated virgins, monks, and friars. We hope our blog can be a community among people living celibate lives in the world right now so that others can better see the rich diversity of this vocation.

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