A Few Thoughts on Celibacy and Socioeconomic Status

A reflection by Sarah

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning to write a post on celibacy and socioeconomic status. I’ve spent considerable time trying to pull my thoughts together on this topic and have decided that I’d like to explore it in bits and pieces over time. Not much has been written on celibacy and class issues, especially from within the gay Christian blogosphere, so while I see this topic as very important I don’t intend to tackle all of it immediately or even within the near future. Today, I begin by offering some brief, scattered thoughts.

In some ways, I feel as though I may not be the right person to write on this topic. Though I grew up in one of the poorest regions of America and my upbringing did involve some socioeconomic challenges we were certainly not the poorest people in Appalachia. As I type this, I can hear my mom’s voice ringing in my head: “You didn’t have it bad. You had more than a lot of kids in this county.” I wouldn’t contest that. It’s entirely true. I’m not writing this to get sympathy or to suggest that I’m an expert on class issues. That isn’t my area of academic expertise. I’m also not about to perpetuate the myth that poverty is bad. It isn’t. Life below the poverty line can be just as fulfilling as life above it. In my adulthood thus far, I’ve lived on both sides long enough to know. What compelled me to write this post is my observation that nearly all my friends who write on celibacy and LGBT Christian issues come from similar upper middle class or middle middle class backgrounds, and sometimes in our discussions I feel like the odd person out. The thoughts that follow come from that sense of difference.

Leading a richly connected life is a challenge for any celibate person, but for the person who has fewer resources, there’s additional difficulty. Staying connected with my family of origin is not nearly as easy for me as it is for some of my friends living celibacy. I do not have the resources to visit my parents, sister, and brother-in-law more than once per year if even then. Likewise, my parents do not have the resources to fly me back to my hometown even a few times a year, or to visit me where I am. This is further complicated by the fact that the nearest airports are two hours away from where they live, and the nearest interstate highway is an hour’s drive. It would be impossible for me to be present for every special moment that my relatives experience. I’ve not had the option of attending birthday parties, baptisms, and graduations for my younger cousins. I’ve not had the opportunity to visit my aunt who has survived two kinds of lymphoma since the last time I saw her. I had to miss the funeral of my favorite high school English teacher who inspired me toward both teaching and celibacy, and whom I considered a member of my family by default. I make choices regularly that result in a weakened connection to my family. Some of these choices are motivated by other factors, but socioeconomic issues play a significant role.

I would guess that social class also plays a role in a person’s discernment of how and within what context to live celibacy. In past generations, it was common for children from poor families to grow up and become nuns, monks, or celibate priests. I’ll admit to not knowing how common this is today, but everyone I know personally who has pursued one of these vocations has come from a more privileged background than my own. My friends who entered religious orders after giving away all their possessions have had the assurance of knowing that if their postulancies didn’t work out for whatever reason, they would be able to go home and live with their parents while getting back on their feet and reintegrating into the world. A serious concern that I took into consideration when discerning was my knowledge that I could not do this. I’m sure that my parents would never allow me to be homeless if I had absolutely no other place to live, but I knew as a college student discerning the possibility of religious life that I had to be absolutely certain of my calling to a specific community before joining because my parents would not have been able to foot the bill for a restart on adult life.

Similarly, I have to admit that my decision to live celibacy in partnership is — to an extent — socioeconomically motivated. Where I grew up, people marry early. A large percentage of my high school class married immediately after graduation. A few who went to college married after college graduation. And a few married while still in high school. Growing up in an area where employment is sparse and it can be difficult to make ends meet, I learned from an early age that the ability to marry someone simply because you’re in love is a privilege. I remember my mother telling me as a pre-teen, “Love won’t pay the bills. It’s good to be in love with the person you marry. But if you marry a man who can’t support you and your kids, you’ll be hurting for the rest of your life.” Where I was raised, it was expected that people would pair up and marry. The idea of voluntary celibacy was unheard of, and the rare celibate women in the community were viewed as “old maids.” The assumption was that these women had sought husbands and failed continuously along the way. I think these attitudes have multiple roots, but one of them is the simple fact that in poor areas it is hard, if not impossible, to make a decent living on one’s own with no support from a spouse or other family members. The “old maid” state of life is bemoaned partly because of the assumption that these women will have no one to take care of them in their old age because they won’t benefit from a husband’s savings. Setting the gender issues aside for the time being (that could be another post), if a person is poor or lower middle class, it makes sense to prepare for the possibility of having to support oneself financially but do everything possible to avoid that actually being necessary. This is just as true for gay people as for straight people. I know a fair number of folks in my hometown who are gay, whether they identify as gay or not, but willingly entered into opposite sex marriages because they didn’t see another financially viable option for their lives. I can appreciate this because I know that if Lindsey and I were not living our celibate vocations under the same roof, my expenses would be crushing. Many of my single celibate friends have trouble understanding that being able to live celibacy on one’s own, even with roommates who aren’t economically attached beyond rent payments, is a privilege.

My last item of reflection for the day is a link I see amongst socioeconomic status, education, and discernment of a celibate vocation. It’s often assumed that upper middle class Americans are more educated and intellectually capable than poor and lower middle class Americans. There’s a grain of truth in that: generally, people from upper middle class backgrounds have far greater educational opportunities and far more space to spend time discerning vocation. When you come from a lower socioeconomic class, you learn quickly that getting through life is about making the best possible plays with the cards you’re dealt. If you’re dealt a bad hand, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you have, so you accept it and work with it. There’s no expectation that in the course of life, you’ll move up from a pair of twos to a full house. In my senior year of college, I came to realize that vocational discernment is about both what you desire and what God is calling you to do in life. Before, I had always thought that how you lived your life was simply a matter of getting through each day and letting the chips fall where they may.

It seems to me that within the current discussion of LGBT celibacy, there’s a pervasive assumption that every gay person has the privilege of spending time in thoughtful vocational discernment, reading and learning about historic Christian models of marriage and celibacy, and asking the tough questions of sexual ethics. If you’re not from a solidly middle class family who can provide for most of your major needs in college, graduate school, or young adulthood general, it’s likely that you don’t have the spare time to devote to these intellectual pursuits. While I’ve always been an egghead, I can also say that during my early and mid 20s I was far more concerned with the tips I made as a bartender than I was with the finer points of Church teaching about sexuality and vocation. Yes, this was true even of me as a theology student, and I’m still convinced that my opportunity to attend graduate school at an expensive Catholic university was more about luck than my intellectual ability. For poor and lower middle class people, vocation is not about discernment, decisions, or morality. It’s about going to or looking for work every day and putting food on the table. Celibacy has minimal connection to either of these. Sometimes, I wonder if more people from poor communities would recognize a natural inclination toward celibate vocations if they had the same space for discernment as folks from more privileged backgrounds.

These thoughts are only a beginning to a more thorough treatment of this topic. I’m hoping that at least some of them make sense or will at least initiate some interesting discussion. As a final note, I realize that my own experience of life will naturally differ from the experiences of other people who have been poor or lower middle class. Any generalizations in this post should be taken as rooted in my personal experience and not with the intention to make assumptions about others. I look forward to discussing more with you in the comments.

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16 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Celibacy and Socioeconomic Status

  1. Great post! I grew up middle class but both of my parents came from poor families and were born during the Great Depression and when I learn stories about my grandparents’ lives, it makes me more aware of how privileged my upbringing was. It would not have been possible for me in those circumstances to live as a woman alone, and that’s aside from changing social expectations over recent generations about women’s roles.

    I wrote a post recently about life as a solitary celibate when you aren’t able to drive: http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com/post/101455272981/a-solitary-carless-life

    There is a lot of overlap with socioeconomic status, since many low-income people do not own cars, and it highlights the importance of accessibility issues (something you mentioned on Twitter the other day).

    • Laura, I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing! Driving is another important issue, and I hadn’t even thought of it. -Sarah

  2. Laura: Your post about living alone as a non-driver resonates with me. I’m in a similar position. Being a non-driver has a significant impact on the choices I make in life, such as where I can reasonably live.

    Sarah: I’ve been thinking about social class recently too, though in a somewhat different direction. I come from a middle-class background (I’m not sure about subdivisions of middle-class, like what qualifies as upper-middle-class), but have recently made a life choice that, when it comes into effect (which won’t be for most of another year), may involve struggling to make ends meet. Specifically, I’m committed to sharing a home and finances with someone who may not be able to work for health reasons. My income is adequate for one person (living an inexpensive lifestyle) but will be stretched thin to cover two. I don’t know if I’d still count as middle-class in such a scenario or not.

    • Estel, we can relate to what you’ve shared too. We’re always talking about how to make things come together financially in the event that I become unable to work. We’ve already had some experience with that during Lindsey’s period of unemployment. Making a middle class salary doesn’t always mean that one can live a middle class lifestyle, and many people don’t realize that. Thanks for sharing. -Sarah

      • Yeah, it makes sense that you would be considering similar issues.

        “Making a middle class salary doesn’t always mean that one can live a middle class lifestyle” – well-put.

  3. Interesting post. I grew up in a depressed area in Southern Oregon. My parents worked, and I would consider us middle class looking back. Growing up I don’t remember being that aware of socio economic issues, although our little church reached out to less fortunate people.

    It wasn’t until many years after leaving that town (30 yrs) that I returned for a high school reunion and noticed a big difference in the lives of those who chose to stay and “eek” out a living, compared to those who chose higher education and/or moving to an area with more opportunity.

    I think you are correct, Sarah, that those with more resources, or options may have time to pursue things that others wouldn’t. When I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, vocational discernment and things of that nature would fit into the highest level, or self-actualization. People I grew up with who stayed in my home town have struggled to meet basic needs, many living paycheck to paycheck if lucky enough to have a steady job to rely on! So, your post made me think that when people are working so hard to meet their needs, physical/safety/social, matters of self-actualization must seem lofty.

    It would be a fascinating study, or research project to explore the topic of celibacy and socioeconomic status, especially in the gay Christian arena.

    • I agree that it would make an interesting research topic. Maybe someday I’ll delve more deeply into it in my professional life…or I can just do it slowly here. I was thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as I was deciding what to say in this post. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that when I am unsure of where my next meal or tank of gas is coming from, I don’t have much mental space for abstractions. -Sarah

  4. This isn’t related to the key part of your post, but I wanted to clarify something about religious formation. You don’t have to give up everything you own to become a postulant. You don’t have to give up your clothes, your savings, and sometimes, even your house or your car until you become a novice or make vows. I know this because I was a postulant with the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor. Many young men and women choose to do this because they want to enter with their whole heart, and likely because they do have that assurance that their parents are there if they end up leaving, but I was specifically discouraged from doing that before entering. And it’s not possible to be 100% sure of your vocation to a community before living with them – that’s what postulancy, and even novitiate, are designed for. It’s like saying you have to be 100% sure you’ll marry someone before you start dating. (I know, the analogy is far from perfect.)

    Anyway, thank you for this post. I have definitely seen that most people living Christian celibacy are pretty well-off, but it’s hard to define all of the reasons for that. There are certainly many very poor, very pious Catholics! Could it be that there are, in fact, many poor men or women who don’t get married and are living a celibate life, but they didn’t reflect on it so consciously, and they don’t write blog posts or books about it?

    • Hi Rachel. Much of the “giving up everything” expectation depends upon the order one enters as a postulant, and also whether it’s in a Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Episcopal context. The vast majority of people I know who have entered monastic vocations have discerned calls to contemplative orders or Orthodox monasteries, and in some of those there can be a higher expectation to unburden oneself of worldly goods before entering. But actually, I do know someone who is now a sister with the Ann Arbor Dominicans! What a small world. I also agree that it’s not possible to be 100% sure of one’s vocation before entering a relationship, a religious order, etc…but I certainly felt much more pressure to be sure than some of my friends did. Ultimately, I discovered that monastic life was not my calling, but sometimes I wonder if I would’ve considered it for a bit longer had I known there would be some sort of practical safety net should things not work out. To your last question: yes, it could be. I’ve thought about this myself, and I’d love to meet more people who fit that description. I haven’t met many because, as I said in the post, where I grew up, single adults were extremely rare. I think one of the reasons that celibacy and socioeconomic status has not been discussed more is that poor celibates *might* be less likely to share publicly about their experiences. But I’d feel deeply honored to form a friendship with such a person. -Sarah

  5. This is really important stuff–thank you. Class privilege is so often the missing link in our justice analyses, and discernment is so complicated by the intersection of God’s dreams, our God-birthed dreams, and the reality of our fallen world. Makes me think of Eve’s stuff on when vocation may be more accepting what happens than living our own preferences, and Malcolm X writing of his brilliant boyhood friend who should have been able to study and teach higher mathematics but ended up as a numbers runner.

    I also wanted to mention how moved I was by both your and Linsdey’s posts the other day since I didn’t comment then. I had just dreamed of you the night before–I met you in person somehow and was so delighted to see your face, wishing I could meet her too, and then woke up wondering if there was some significance to that theme. Then I read the posts and thought it was to remind me to deepen my prayer for you and others who are wrestling so deeply with anguish from (un)Christian homophobia and feeling alone and caught in the middle. I can’t tell you what a gift it is that you stay in the church, wisely give yourself permission for sabbaticals from dangerous times and places when necessary, and keep speaking your truth with courage. I will keep you especially in my mind and heart as I lead an Ignatian spirituality retreat weekend after next (Nov. 14-16) at an Ohio retreat house hosted by Episcopal nuns (and would cherish your prayers as well as I prepare and move through the weekend–especially the time of confession and/or healing prayer on Saturday evening).

    I hope it’s okay to share the hymn inspired by Ignatius’ (of Loyola, not Antioch!) Spiritual Exercises which I have set to the tune of “Amazing Grace”–the first stanza in particular, which corresponds to the “First Week” of the Exercises, makes me think of your holy family.

    The journey will heal us as we share,
    Speak truth that frees from shame
    Each gifted, wounded, precious child
    Love holds and calls by name.

    The journey will name us as we hear
    The call of Christ on earth,
    Work with our just and gentle king
    To bring God’s reign to birth.

    The journey will birth us as watch
    By Jesus’ wounded side,
    Bless bread and cup to meet again
    Our risen friend and guide.

    The journey will guide us as we seek
    The Spirit’s still, small voice,
    The joy and glory that She brings
    Through each life-giving choice.

  6. I am a tad confused as to why life-long celibacy, per se, would be a calling, rather than a personal preference or (asexual/gray-a) orientation. A life of prayer – that’s a vocation, connected in the Catholic Church with celibacy, but not necessarily dependent on life-long celibacy in wider religious tradition.

    • Celibacy has no necessary connection to prayer–there were family monasteries in the early church and there are now modern monastic orders for single or partnered people who live in the world. Nor does it have a necessary connection to ordained ministry — I sure hope not given I am a mama priest so Mother in both senses and they are beautifully consonant between being a living Eucharist and presiding at Eucharist! But it is one of the diverse and wonderful ways of consecrating oneself–whether as a solitary, in a couple, or a larger community–to God and God’s people that has some wonderful gifts to share which Sarah and Lindsey have blogged about quite a bit and I am sure will continue to. I have very happy memories of being really well loved and formed by happy and healthy celibate priests and religious (not all are esp. in the RC setting where celibacy is enforced for the former) and seeing the benefits for my kids, people alone or in need, etc. Their freedom from a particular intense commitment (or from the sexual aspect of it, in the case of couples) somehow gives them a way to uniquely love all God’s people in a different way than my marriage and parenting gives me.

    • Hi Nancy. Laura’s response is similar to what I was going to say. Celibacy enables Lindsey and me to love and serve the world differently than married people do. But yes, certainly all Christian vocations should include a prayer rule and commitment to serving God and others. -Sarah

  7. Hello ladies,

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now, so thank you for all you write!

    I don’t have much to add to the experiential side of your post and the comments, other than to say I’m glad to know of the variety. I did love this statement, “In my senior year of college, I came to realize that vocational discernment is about both what you desire and what God is calling you to do in life.” It took me a long time to realize this, that my own desires had a real part to play in the discernment of my vocation. And I think this insight, which you won for yourself, is more rare than it should be.

    I thought I would expand on your comment that it was very common for poor people to enter religious life in past generations. This is true — and perhaps you meant to imply this — often BECAUSE of socioeconomic reasons. For women, this might be the only way they could be taken care of, or the only way they could receive an education. I’m thinking particularly of the Beguines, who attracted women from all socioeconomic status during the middle ages, precisely because there was economic support, community life, and a certain freedom that came with being part of the ‘order.’ It was flexible, so many left to get married, but many did not and preferred not to.

    Also, I think the ‘space’ you mention needed for people to discern is granted to those with economic freedom in our country/culture, but it’s also become necessary in our day and age because religious life, even sometimes in very devout circles, is still seen as a radical, not ‘first’, choice. It would be interesting to see if the socioeconomic issues come into play in traditionally Catholic countries, where the idea of celibacy and religious vocation has been part of the fabric of the culture, unlike in our American society, which is still so, sometimes unwittingly, dominated by a Protestant ethic.

    Thank you again!

    • Hi Mary! I just responded to your other comment on the Beguines post. Glad you enjoyed that one. We had fun writing it. Yes, I didn’t state it outright in this post, but did mean to imply that poverty in past generations motivated people to pursue celibacy. I’d like to expand upon that at some point. Thanks for commenting. We’re very glad to see you in the comment box. 🙂 -Sarah

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