Celibacy can be a gift, and should not be a mandate. But it’s not that simple…

A reflection by Sarah

I know we’ve already posted once today, but I felt compelled to reflect on a quip that Lindsey and I hear more and more often: “Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate,” or one of its variants. We see this message in the work of authors like James Brownson and Matthew Vines, and it appears at least once in every internet comment box attached to an article about LGBT celibacy. If you’re at all involved in the current conversation about LGBT people and the Church, you may have noticed that this catchy little quote has become almost a mantra for many Christians who affirm sexually active LGBT relationships but want to be clear that they are not disparaging celibacy as such. I can respect that. Celibate LGBT Christians need support and affirmation in our vocations. I welcome any sincere effort to be more supportive of celibates, who are often hated equally by liberals and conservatives in the Church. But while I can respect the sentiment, I cannot pretend to agree with the statement as it is worded.

Both Lindsey and I have stated many times on this blog that we believe celibacy can be a gift and celibacy should not be mandated. There should be no doubt at this point that we believe celibacy is a vocation to be discovered, not a frying pan with which to bash LGBT people (or anyone) over the head. We’ve also been open about our own sense that God has given us the gift of celibacy. Why, then, do I take issue with the assertion, “Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate?” The answer is simple and clear: it creates a false dichotomy in which celibacy can manifest in only one of two ways. Either a person is forced into celibacy by a religious institution or some other external entity, or that same person feels naturally inclined to celibacy because it has been given to him or her as a gift from God. Within this framework, the only legitimate reason for pursuing celibacy is the latter. Anything else is a form of self-loathing. Usually, I don’t like to make such confrontational statements on the blog, but I cannot in good conscience sit by and listen to this argument without calling it out as hogwash.

Before you click away from this post and accuse me of being “just another hateful, non-affirming member of the celibacy movement” (we’re a movement now? I must have missed that memo…), stick around for the example I’m about to offer. It has no relationship whatsoever to LGBT issues.

In at least one past post, we’ve already referenced Hildegard of Bingen who was given to her monastery as a “gift to God” when she was a child. She was a visionary, a composer, and a writer who penned theological, poetic, medical, and other kinds of texts. She did all of this within the context of a monastic vocation that she did not choose for herself. Unfortunately, I could not find the following clip with English subtitles, but it’s from the German film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. It shows young Hildegard with Jutta, her caregiver who would teach her the ways of monastic life. Does the child in this video appear to be a person who is discernibly manifesting the gift of celibacy?

Hildegard is not the only child ever to have been given to a monastery to live out the rest of her life in a celibate vocation. Before her time, this phenomenon was even more prevalent. One of the earliest uses of the term “oblate” was in reference to children whose parents handed them over to monks and nuns — children who, in accordance with the canons of the Church councils prior to the mid-seventh century, were treated in all respects as monks and nuns. It was not until the Tenth Council of Toledo in 656 when slightly stricter age limitations were placed that these young people even had the option of leaving the monastery after reaching adolescence and before making vows. Were all of these children forced into celibacy? In a sense, yes. Perhaps some of them did develop that gift over time, but it would be absurd to think that every child in this situation over multiple generations was naturally inclined toward a celibate way of life. Equally, it would be unreasonable to suggest that every child experienced this way of life as “forced.” In the medieval period, the idea that every person could choose his or her own vocation based on personal gifts given by God was unimaginable. I’d be interested to know how celibacy within this historical context would fit into the “gift vs. forced” dichotomy. Try to make it fit without imposing 21st century western notions of autonomy, free choice, and individualism as norms that transcend time and place. You can’t.

The argument that “celibacy is a gift, not a mandate” is ahistorical and thoroughly modern. It fails to take into account over a thousand years of Christian history where a person’s pursuit of celibacy and marriage had much more to do with factors outside his or her control than a personal sense of calling from God. This is not to dismiss the stories of people who, from the 1st century forward, have pursued celibacy as a response to a God-given gift. To disregard those stories would be to disregard my own, and Lindsey’s. People are often confused as to why I find “Celibacy as a gift, not a mandate” so problematic. As a person who does feel naturally inclined to celibacy and believes that God has called me to live out the rest of my life in celibate partnership, I see that statement not as an affirmation of my way of life, but as a backhanded compliment. Somehow, my celibacy is okay because I perceive a call to it, but my friend’s commitment to celibacy is “self-loathing” because he struggles every day to live it. Or maybe my celibacy is not okay. Perhaps I should have to answer hundreds of questions to prove to everyone in the LGBT Christian conversation that I really do have the gift of celibacy and am not just repressing my sexuality. I’ve head that one from a number of people.

These are only a few of the problems that arise when discussion of celibacy becomes dichotomized, especially by people in Christian traditions that have dismissed celibacy completely for centuries. If you’re going to affirm that the gift of celibacy exists, show some integrity and admit that the Christian tradition has never limited celibate vocations to those who are specially gifted. Until a broader discussion of celibacy is included in the LGBT Christian conversation, affirming celibate vocations as gifts just doesn’t cut the mustard. “Affirming” people will still view celibates as suspicious purveyors of homophobia, and “non-affirming” people will not find the “gift” argument a sufficient reason for supporting the marriages of gay people who aren’t gifted with celibacy. Yes, celibacy can be a gift. No, celibacy should not be a mandate. But it’s not that simple, and pretending that it is is downright irresponsible.

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12 thoughts on “Celibacy can be a gift, and should not be a mandate. But it’s not that simple…

  1. “Somehow, my celibacy is okay because I perceive a call to it, but my friend’s commitment to celibacy is ‘self-loathing’ because he struggles every day to live it.”

    A very interesting point. Personally, I wouldn’t automatically classify anyone’s commitment to celibacy as “self-loathing,” because a commitment like that is deeply personal and very complicated, but I know that can be a common perception. I’d venture to say that the majority of people struggle with spiritual gifts, even if we feel a calling or a natural inclination, like you do.

    Honestly, I think that the difference between struggling with a commitment to celibacy and “self-loathing” is the motivation behind pursuing celibacy. If someone who doesn’t feel “naturally inclined” to celibacy chooses to be celibate to please their family or their church community… that’s problematic. If someone hears or perceives God calling them to celibacy and chooses to pursue it even though they do struggle, that can be beautiful and inspiring.

    Discerning gifts and the struggle or lack thereof can be assisted by a church community, but when a church community says “all X are called to Y” without taking into consideration the diversity of both gifts and believers–that’s when celibacy becomes a mandate and that’s when it’s problematic.

    • Much of what you bring up is why we advocate for spiritual directors helping people to discover their vocations. We need better discussion about vocations within all Christian traditions, regardless of their teachings on marriage and celibacy. The frying pan approach is always harmful, whether it’s in regard to marriage or celibate ways of life. -Sarah

  2. What you’re saying here is so important for people to grasp! I really enjoyed reading your post about the Beguines and learning more about them, because it seems many women in the church today are in the same situation: there’s simply not enough men. Not that they’re dead, but they’re certainly not in the church – I’ve read that there’s a 3:2 ratio of women to men among American Christians. That leaves a huge number of women who will never have a Christian husband through no choice of their own. It’s simple mathematics, and I think a lot of times this debate assumes that anyone can find a sexual partner whenever they want and celibates simply choose not to. Discrimination against us unattractive, timid weirdos! Kidding, of course. 🙂

    There’s also this strange idea that a lot of Christian women have: “Unless you’re specifically called to celibacy, God has your husband waiting for you out there!” Which is a kind of magical thinking that’s un-Biblical, damaging, and leads to entitlement and bitterness.

    My feelings and thoughts about my calling don’t matter as much as simply serving the Lord faithfully, always and everywhere. He uses our gifts and desires because he delights in the way he created us, but he also gives us the gift of disappointment and unfulfilled longing to point us to himself. Celibacy doesn’t last; marriage doesn’t last; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away; but abiding in the love of Jesus Christ is eternal and absolutely worth the few sad years we have to pass in exile here, whether married, celibate, partnered, or alone.

    • Ivy, I agree with you. These are some great thoughts. The point you raise about women expecting that a husband is waiting for them if they are not called to celibacy–I’ve seen this quite a bit, and it is even encouraged in many Christian contexts. I’ve even heard this from a Catholic nun before! “…abiding in the love of Jesus Christ is eternal and absolutely worth the few sad years we have to pass in exile here, whether married, celibate, partnered, or alone.” Indeed. Beautifully stated. -Sarah

  3. I generally agree with you on the main point here — setting up celibacy as an either/or mandate/gift is a limiting, false dichotomy.
    I think it’s interesting that I find fault in the message for somewhat different reasons than you express here, probably because I’m hearing it through “affirming” ears. It’s not so much that the message directs me to “view celibates as suspicious purveyors of homophobia”. Actually, I’m not inclined to pay much mind to the first half of the message. It’s the second half that lets me off the hook, pushes me to be dismissive of possibilities. “Has God granted me THIS gift?, hmmmm . . . 17, 18, 19, 20 seconds, . . . no, I guess not so I’ll just look to get hitched.” Another facet is the message tends to translate from “a gift” to “for the gifted and talented” and idealize celibacy as some exotic off-ramp, best left to the hot house flowers, out of reach for me and the rest of us destined-to-get-married schlubs. If I had to gin up an alternate slogan I suppose I would be happy enough with “Celibacy is not a mandate, it’s a vocation” if only as an attempt to put it on par with that other vocation, marriage, and viewed through a similar lens that allows shades of grey.

    • I love it! “Celibacy is a vocation, not a mandate.” Your comment brings out another dimension of this topic that I would’ve loved to address in this post, but didn’t have room to do well. Dichotomizing the discussion of celibacy *does* give permission to be dismissive of celibacy as a vocational possibility, implying that what we’re called to do in life is about nothing more than the gifts God has given us. Our gifts are definitely part of it, but God sometimes calls us to do things that we aren’t gifted toward or even equipped to do. This happens throughout the scriptures: Jonah is the first person who comes to mind. It seems that some people become wary of celibacy talk once the discussion reaches a point of, “Maybe some people who are called to celibacy don’t have a special gift for it. Maybe *most* people are called to something in life — big or small — for which we are not gifted or equipped.” Somehow, those sentences get interpreted as, “Let’s force celibacy upon LGBT people,” and I have trouble understanding that. I have trouble understanding how anyone with a serious level of biblical knowledge could suggest that a person should not attempt living a celibate vocation (or insert anything else here that God could call you to do) unless he/she has a special gift for it. -Sarah

  4. Another great article on explaining celibacy 🙂 Love these quotes ”we believe celibacy is a vocation to be discovered, not a frying pan with which to bash LGBT people (or anyone) over the head” and ” I really do have the gift of celibacy and am not just repressing my sexuality” Love you two! 🙂

  5. Wonderful post but it leaves me wondering about people who argue that the church (specifically the a Church of England) shouldn’t change her position on homosexuality because that would betray their struggle to be celibate to avoid sin. See for example “The Plausibility Problem” by Ed Shaw (a book I mainly agree with in its identification of missteps about sex but disagree with the conclusion of that lgbti people should be celibate our marry someone of opposite)

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