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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