When Celibacy Fails

Since the first week we began sharing our story as a celibate couple, numerous readers have extended us the privilege of listening to their own stories. We’ve heard from celibate and non-celibate LGBTs as well as straight people. Folks questioning their sexual orientations and gender identities have also written to us. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists have dropped us a line to express interest in the specific way we address LGBT Christian topics. One common topic request we’ve received from at least someone in each of these groups has been: how would you suggest that Christian traditions respond to LGBT people who have given their all to celibacy only to see it fail them?

This is one of the most challenging questions facing churches today as they grapple with how to welcome LGBT members as full participants in the Body of Christ while also remaining faithful to the Christian tradition. Before going any farther in this post, we’ll confess to you that we do not know the best and fullest answer to this question. Perhaps no Christian does. Perhaps only God does. We struggle with this issue, and we consider that a good thing. And we will go so far as to suggest that if you’re a Christian and aren’t finding this question difficult, you should be.

To explore this issue more deeply, it would be beneficial for Christians and Christian traditions as a whole to consider first another question: are we imposing sexual abstinence as an unfunded mandate with dire consequences for LGBT people who do not succeed? Especially as more people are coming to awareness of their sexual orientations and gender identities at younger ages, it is irresponsible and cruel for churches to repeat, “You can’t have sex!” and refuse to offer any additional support. In Matthew 23:4, Jesus admonishes his disciples and the multitude not to do as the scribes and Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” This is exactly what many of today’s priests and pastors are doing: they attempt to force celibacy on the fifteen-year-old boy who has just realized that he might be gay, telling him that failing to be celibate will make him unwelcome at services and offering no counsel besides, “Choose to develop heterosexual desires. Don’t have close relationships with other boys. Until you’re starting to think about marriage, don’t have close relationships with girls either.”

In the eyes of many young people, the only two options in this situation are 1) force yourself to be sexually abstinent with no sense of future vocation or present support, or 2) don’t force yourself into a permanent state of abstinence, but simultaneously risk being excommunicated, barred from entering the church building, and/or kicked out of your parents’ house. It shouldn’t be surprising that with no other alternatives, numerous young LGBT Christians find themselves crushed by the pressure from priests, pastors, parents, and faith communities. Collectively, we’ve heard this type of story from hundreds of people, including friends we’ve known since long before our blogging adventure began. It’s not rare, and all Christian traditions imposing unfunded celibacy mandates should be shamed by its prevalence.

If you’re reading this as a straight Christian, think about your own experience of beginning to realize your sexuality at 13, 15, 18…whenever that was for you. How has your experience of your sexuality developed over time? How have you grown in your understanding of sexuality? How would you have felt if at that age, the only guidance the leader of your faith community had for you was, “You’re going to be celibate for life. You have to be. That’s what the Bible says. End of discussion”? We’re not anticipating that every straight person would have the same responses to these questions. Likewise, no two LGBT people have the exact same responses to discussions of sexuality and celibacy.

It is not fair to assume that all LGBT Christians who are genuinely committed to Christ and the Church will respond positively to the demands of a celibate vocation. A reality that many Christians have trouble reconciling is that not all LGBT celibates experience this way of life as emotionally and physically bearable, let alone joyous. However, there are people who remain just as dedicated to living celibacy no matter what pain it brings. When we share our perception of the celibate life as a blessing and a gift, that is our story—not a normative expectation that can be applied to all LGBT celibates. The not-having-sex part of a celibate vocation is more challenging for some than it is for others, and no, we don’t have a catchall answer as to why that is. For the purposes of this post, that question might not even be relevant. Nonetheless, we know that for some of our friends who have chosen to pursue celibacy, remaining sexually abstinent is an enormous burden. At times, it becomes impossible to bear.

Just as we’ve heard stories of folks who have known and delighted in the realization that God has been calling them to celibacy since age 7, we’ve also listened to painful cries of, “I’ve failed again, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of this day.” We’ve also experienced our own failures at living fully into celibate vocations. In the recent past, we discussed the fragility of vocation—that all vocations are challenging and must be nurtured in order to succeed. An experience of failure does not mean that one has completely failed at a celibate vocation. Churches that expect celibacy of their LGBT members would do well to recognize that, and to acknowledge the variety of ways celibates experience celibacy—even if it means discovering that straight Christians don’t fully understand what they’re asking of their LGBT brothers and sisters.

There are experiences of celibacy that it seems few people in conservative churches are willing to consider without immediately trying to diagnose. These stories lie at the heart of our question for today: what about people who have made every possible effort to live celibacy and have become emotionally, spiritually, even physically unable to continue? Straight Christians (and even some celibate LGBT Christians) can be quick to assume that something must be wrong with a person who has lived this experience. People begin to make guesses about what went awry: did she lose her faith? Was she slacking in her prayer and fasting disciplines? Did she let herself become envious of other people in sexually active relationships? She couldn’t have been living celibacy correctly if this happened. These speculations show a lack of empathy and a general lack of Christian charity. When a person becomes unable to continue in celibacy during a certain season of life, that doesn’t mean the vocation of celibacy has failed the person, but also doesn’t necessarily mean the person “did celibacy wrong.” One could make a comparison here with situations in which marriages fall apart. Divorce is never an ideal outcome of the vocation of marriage, but because we live in a fallen world it is sometimes necessary. Still, that doesn’t mean the person whose marriage failed because of his wife’s infidelity and inability to acknowledge her own sin “did marriage wrong.”

Until churches begin to acknowledge that the issue of celibacy is not as simple as “Don’t have sex, or else…” LGBT Christians will continue to suffer needlessly, and as a result the entire Body of Christ will suffer. As a Church, we need to be more open to holding these difficult conversations and stop passing down unfunded mandates with potential consequences that leave honest, humble, faithful (though often scrupulous) people terrified to darken the doorways on Sunday morning. Would it be at all possible for conservative churches to make some accommodation for people who, after hundreds of attempts, have been unable to live celibate vocations? Would it serve the state of a person’s soul to be in one committed, sexually active relationship for a lifetime if the only realistic alternative would be falling to the temptation of a hookup once a month while earnestly trying to live celibacy? Does a traditional sexual ethic leave any space for the possibility that not everyone pursuing celibacy feels called to it, or that sometimes vocations fail even when people do everything possible to nurture them? We don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But back to the more general query at the beginning of this post: how would we suggest that Christian traditions respond to LGBT people who have given their all to celibacy only to see it fail them? The only answer we know to give is: respond with a heart full of compassion.

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14 thoughts on “When Celibacy Fails

  1. I didn’t think you cared about people who said they got hurt by celibacy and they couldn’t do it. Why do you care about us now?

    • Hello Alex! I’m not sure what blog post you are referring to, but I don’t remember reading them express a lack of care for people who got hurt by celibacy. I know Sarah and Lindsey to be compassionate and caring, and I hope you realize they do care. Speaking for myself, I have been abstinent for some years though I am not pledged to celibacy. If ever I were to marry a man, I am sure Sarah and Lindsey would still be my friends. I believe God is kind to all of us in these difficult questions of life.

    • Hi Alex. From the beginning of our writing project, we have tried to communicate that we care about all LGBT people, and we acknowledge that people may have different ways of approaching the difficult questions of sexual ethics. The fact that we’re celibate does not mean that we don’t care about non-celibate folks. One of the main points of this post was to begin discussion on the fact that celibacy sometimes doesn’t work out for people who try their very best to live it. As we said in the post, we don’t have an answer for what the Church should do about this, but we think the question is worthy of a larger conversation.

  2. “Unfunded mandates” is such a great term to apply to this issue. I am grateful to have read your words. Ironically, the funding required by such a mandate would seem to include finances like love, hugs, warmth, caring conversation, non-judgment, encouragement, mercy and friendship. Ironic that those items seem in such short supply in some churches, certainly when LGBT people are concerned. Yet I believe God is using this issue to open the hearts of his people.

    • Hi Michael. It is quite unfortunate that all these things are in such short supply where LGBT people are concerned, especially in churches. We pray that changes in the future. The world in general needs more hugs, warmth, encouragement, and all those other things you mentioned.

  3. This question made me think about a very good friend of mine who has just had her first child and was having difficulty breastfeeding her. She knew that breast milk was the best food and she wanted so much to breastfeed but try as she might, she just couldn’t make breastfeeding work for her and her baby. She tried very hard for a month but the baby wasn’t getting enough food and the mother was doing nothing but feeding and it was a bad scene for both of them. She decided that she had to switch to formula for both their sakes and felt like a complete failure as a mother. She was devastated. She posted about her struggles on Facebook and she received an outpouring of love and reassurance that she is a good mother and life happens. Now the baby is getting enough food with the formula and the mother is happier and calmer and things are much better. The mother doesn’t think that breastfeeding is bad and will probably try again with future children, possibly with great success but at this time, breastfeeding – though theoretically the best answer – was not the right answer in this case.
    Now imagine this story as a friend struggling with celibacy instead of breastfeeding. Could this serve as a model as how to understand and care for people wanting to be celibate but finding it fail for them?
    (I like parables as much as Jesus.)

    • Hi Anna. We’re glad you’ve found A Queer Calling. The breastfeeding analogy is interesting. It’s a great example of how sometimes, even when we desperately want our approach to work out because “it’s supposed to,” it doesn’t. Thanks for sharing!

  4. There are two questions that need to be answered:
    1- How to treat those who fail in their attempt to be celibate?
    2- What should those who fail do next? (How should they treat themselves after they fail?)

    Those who try celibacy (for any reason) and fails should be treated the same way as we treat people who try their best to avoid (any) mortal sin so as to remain in God’s grace, and yet at times fail – as you said, to be treated with compassion and be given a chance to try again.

    The next question is what should the person who fail (in celibacy or any other good resolution) do when he fails. He should continue to try – never lose hope in achieving the goal of holiness. (Holiness is not an option. It is required of everyone.) For Catholics, the failing person must go to confession and have a firm resolve to do good (and avoid the sin). It does not mean that he will never commit the same sin again. It is most likely that he will fall into the same error some time in the future. But Jesus is ready to forgive again and again.

    The Way of Divine Love (revelation to Sis. Josefa Menendez)
    [free download at ecatholic2000.com]
    Chapter 10
    June 10th–14th, 1923
    I am God, but a God of love! I am a Father, but a Father full of compassion and never harsh. My Heart is infinitely holy but also infinitely wise, and knowing human frailty and infirmity stoops to poor sinners with infinite mercy.

    I love those who after a first fall come to Me for pardon. . . . I love them still more when they beg pardon for their second sin, and should this happen again, I do not say a million times but a million million times, I still love them and pardon them, and I will wash in My blood their last as fully as their first sin.

    Never shall I weary of repentant sinners, nor cease from hoping for their return, and the greater their distress, the greater My welcome. Does not a father love a sick child with special affection? Are not his care and solicitude greater? So is the tenderness and compassion of My Heart more abundant for sinners than for the just.

    This is the reason why Jesus wants his priests to be compassionate to sinners (John 8:11 – Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.)

    • Hi Kasoy. Thanks for your comment. You make some good points. But we don’t see this issue as being quite so straightforward. For a person who is trying to live celibacy and continuously falling short, there’s a point at which obsessing over celibacy can become emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. We know people who have become depressed (even suicidal) after giving everything they possibly could to living a celibate way of life because the only way they could “do” celibacy effectively was to cut themselves off from all meaningful relationships with other people. That’s a real problem that needs to be addressed, no matter what one believes about sexual ethics.

  5. Lindsey and Sarah, I keep meaning to comment or write privately at length to share how very glad I am to “meet” you through this blog and how it resonates with my experience (both as an ordained Catholic woman serving the church I love in exile and a bisexual woman in a faithful and long term straight marriage). But better short then never, so here goes: Your witness of freely chosen celibacy and open loving acceptance of a diverse spread of queer experiences is so powerful and so needed in the painful and combative environment of Christian discourse and practice on LGBT issues. And though I respect your reasoning for not engaging in the moral yes or no debate in general I am especially impressed by your courageous and compassionate discussion of harm reduction in this post along with the crucial importance of the churches which impose a celibacy mandate at least making it a funded, rather than unfunded, one. People who find the traditional blanket condemnations a personal hell after so much striving will be greatly blessed by finding such a possibility lovingly mentioned (and gently advocated, if I read you correctly) by a team/family so clearly loving of and faithful to Christian tradition and generous orthodoxy.

    • Hello, Mother Laura. We’re glad you stopped by today. We hope this post has been helpful for folks who are interested in reflecting on the harm that blanket condemnations can cause for people who are sincerely seeking answers to the very difficult questions LGBT Christians face. Though we still have much growth ahead of us along our own journeys to knowing Christ, we try our best to treat others with the compassion we hope Christ would show us.

  6. Yes, this is definitely a topic that I think needs to be discussed more openly and frequently. And I think it needs to remain important that everyone’s story is different, and like you said, people need to approach this topic with sincere compassion.

    I know currently my parents want me to live a celibate life but honestly I think that would draw me further away from God. If I were to live a celibate life, I know my heart wouldn’t be in the right place; I know my heart would resent God and resent my parents. Even if I was being “obedient” in my actions, I know He wouldn’t be pleased with the state of my heart. Do you have any advice?

    • Hi Chloe. Sorry for the delay in approving this comment! It got caught in our spam filter by mistake. We will write a full, thoughtful response tomorrow. In the meantime, we wanted to let you know that we saw your comment.

    • Hello Chloe, sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

      We agree that many parents can project vocation unto their children. How many parents continually poke their 20- and 30-something children with the question, “So when are we going to be grandparents?” When faced with the question of conservative Christian parents asking their LGBT to embrace celibacy, we have observed there’s a much greater interest in keeping children away from gay sex than there is about understanding how celibate vocations work.

      Everyone has different relationships with their own parents. We’ve generally navigated our discernment process without substantial input from our parents for a plethora of reasons. However, we’re afraid that if parents’ concern is motivated by fear of gay sex, then the resultant discussion of life-giving vocational possibilities is clouded by fear rather than illumined by love. Perhaps it would be worth discussing with your parents why they want you to explore the celibate life. They might also find our post on Moving Beyond the Celibacy Mandate helpful. The post is at: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/05/02/moving-beyond-the-celibacy-mandate/

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