Combating the Contraceptive Understanding of Celibacy

On the one hand, we must appreciate how sex is holy. It might be good to say “holy” instead of “good.” Ironically, the idea that celibacy is a sacrifice treats sex as a good in the same way that a candy bar is a good. But this view belongs to the contraceptive mentality; sex is not good in that way.

 

According to a popular misconception, religious celibacy is about “giving up” something, a sacrifice. Unfortunately, this understanding finds its roots more in the contraceptive mentality than in the Bible or Tradition. We will understand vocations much better when we have purged it. Marriage and celibacy are not in competition; each is raised higher when the other is better understood.

The key misconception is the idea that marriage is a benefit, rather than a duty. In the Catholic understanding, marriage is not about hot sex and someone to bring you a beer. It is about laying down your life.

In fact, the one place Jesus discusses celibacy in the Gospels is in the context of the disciples’ concern that marriage is too hard. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus a legal question about grounds for divorce. Jesus responds that all divorce is akin to adultery: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hardness of heart, but from the beginning it was not so.”

In a moment verging on slapstick (especially when we consider that Peter had a mother-in-law), the disciples respond, “If this is the way with husbands and wives, it is not expedient to marry!”  To which Jesus responds, “Not all are capable of this teaching, but only those to whom the gift is given.” The gift in question appears to be the grace not of celibacy, but of toughing out the challenge of Christian marriage (including Peter’s indissoluble mother-in-law). Then, Jesus gives his line about “castrating oneself for the kingdom of heaven.”

He concludes, “who is capable, let him be capable.” The closing line seems to treat all vocations as grace. But it is interesting to note where Jesus assigns responsibility in the different parts of his speech.  At least in his literal words, marriage is impossible without our hearts being healed; it is a grace. The line about “castrating yourself,” to the contrary, suggests that celibacy is a do-it-yourself affair, for those who do not have the gift.

Now, in Paul’s primary discussion of marriage and celibacy, in 1 Corinthians 7, he seems to say something different: “If they cannot restrain themselves, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.” (Whether you will burn with desire, or burn in Hell because of what that desire causes you to do, is not clear.) Marriage seems to be an outlet for those who lack self-control; the self-control of celibacy seems to be a gift; and, perhaps, that gift allows the celibate to “give up” the delights of the marriage bed—which, after all, appear to be all about lust fulfillment.

This reading, however, has problems on all sorts of levels: philosophical, exegetical, traditional, and theological. Philosophically, is it coherent? Does anyone experience marriage as the constant fulfillment of sexual desire? First: married people spend most of their time not having sex; and indeed, married people, too, experience long periods of abstinence, whether through natural family planning, after births, when travelling, when sick, etc. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the Mosaic purity laws—that is, the laws given to those who, according to Jesus, had such hard hearts that they couldn’t handle the full demands of Christian marriage—demand about two weeks of abstinence every month. That is difficult to accomplish if one has no control over one’s sexual desires.

Note, too, that even people called to marriage spend much of their life unmarried—unless Paul means that children should be married before they experience the first risings of pubescent desire, and that in the very week that a spouse becomes too old or sick to quench one’s sexual desires, one should immediately remarry. But if he means that, he doesn’t say it. In fact, he says that it is better if widows (who, according to our first-glance reading, are used to wild sexual unrestraint) do not remarry.

And, second, it is not clear that marriage makes self-control any easier. Certainly the number of married men who struggle with pornography suggests that marital chastity is not as simple as the can’t-keep-it-in-your-pants reading of 1 Corinthians 7 would suggest. To the contrary, to understand the unique challenges of marital chastity, it is interesting to imagine a celibate sleeping in the same bed with a woman, seeing her dressing or in the shower, and giving her a kiss every time he walks in the door. These things would challenge a man’s celibacy. In fact, celibate saints like Francis of Assisi recommend that celibate men avoid “familiarity with women” for precisely this reason. A married man fans the flames of lust in ways that celibate men (at least those who do not have live-in girlfriends) do not.

In any case, it turns out that having sex does not make you want to have less sex. Just like reading good books gets you more excited about books, and running gets you more, not less, excited about running, so, too, the best way to extinguish your sexual desire is never to engage it.  If Paul is suggesting that the marital embrace is the cure to lust, he is really out of touch. To the contrary, the monastic tradition used to suggest that the day after a sexual dream, one should abstain from the Eucharist, precisely because in their experience, sexual events, even in dreams, tended to stir up one’s sex drive rather than dampening it. We do not have to accept this approach to the Eucharist to see the experiential point being made. Indulging sexual desires is no way to quench them.

What, then, is Paul talking about?  This chapter is famously difficult to interpret because it is unclear which words are Paul’s and which are his opponents’. The opening line states, “It is better for a man not to touch a woman.” But is this Paul’s opinion, or is he quoting the opinion the Corinthians have expressed to him? Or (a middle ground) is he correcting ways they have twisted his words? The exegetes aren’t sure.

Some things in 1 Corinthians 7, however, are clear. Paul is insistent that it is no sin either to marry or not to marry. He says that married couples should “pay their debts to one another;” that their bodies belong to one another; and that they should not deprive one another. He emphasizes that it is the Lord himself who says that you should not leave your wife—and that if a marriage is broken up, one is not permitted to remarry. He especially emphasizes relationships with an unfaithful spouse. (Unfaithful to God? Unfaithful to the marriage? It is not clear.) He says that the unfaithful spouse is “sanctified” by the faithful one; that the children are “holy”; and that you might cause your spouse to be saved. Above all, he tells the Corinthians to stay in whatever state they are in: if you are circumcised, stay circumcised; if you are a slave, stay a slave; and if you are married, stay married.

Piecing all this together, it sounds as if the Corinthians are eager to break off their marriages.  One way or another, they think life would be better without. Paul, meanwhile, calls sex the marital “debt,” and emphasizes that the spouses’ bodies are a kind of property owned by the other. All of this is famously negative. The emphasis, however, seems to be that marriage is not about doing what is most convenient for you. It is a kind of service, which often involves even staying with someone difficult.

Now, there is no question that Paul prefers celibacy: “I wish all were as I am.” If your spouse has died, he recommends that you not remarry—though he emphasizes, almost compulsively, that you do not sin if you remarry. He explains that celibacy is easier than marriage. He says that celibacy spares them a “tribulation of the flesh.” Most of all, it spares them “worries.” The married person has a divided heart, having to care for things of this world, as well as caring for heavenly things, God.  That is difficult. Celibacy, according to Paul, is easier. That is the one point that is clear in 1 Corinthians 7.

This, interestingly, is how the tradition views vocations. Thomas Aquinas concludes the very long middle section of his Summa Theologiae, the part on the moral life, with an exhortation to religious life. Indeed, it is somewhat humorous to note that in this second part, in which he promises to give ever more specific counsel on the ways to happiness, he concludes with an argument that one should not take much counsel, or think too hard about entering religious life: one should just do it! Contrary to our thinking about different vocations, Thomas says that no one should ever doubt that the grace will be there for them to live a celibate vocation. Nor should anyone ever doubt that religious life is the best path to follow: to do so, he says, would be to disparage Christ himself.

Thomas explains, quoting even more copiously than usual from the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine, that the purpose of religious life is to dedicate one’s entire life to God.  Giving away your riches, he says, does not in itself make you perfect, but it is a road to perfection. He repeatedly quotes Augustine’s statement, “celibacy is better than marriage, but I am not better than Abraham.” Poverty, chastity, and obedience aid a person in the quest for perfect charity because they remove obstacles, including both distractions and occasions of sin.

Giving away your riches, he says, does not in itself make you perfect, but it is a road to perfection. He repeatedly quotes Augustine’s statement, “celibacy is better than marriage, but I am not better than Abraham.” Poverty, chastity, and obedience aid a person in the quest for perfect charity because they remove obstacles, including both distractions and occasions of sin.

Although Thomas thinks religious obedience is the greater help to charity, he says that celibacy is an essential part of this religious perfection, for two reasons. First, as we noted above, because having sex does not make one forget about sex, but causes one to think about it more, a snowball of distraction. On this point, he quotes his favorite married, pagan philosopher, Aristotle, who says the same thing: having sex does not make chastity easier. Married sex is not sinful, but insofar as it fans the flames, it can be an occasion of sin. Second, Thomas references our text in 1 Corinthians 7, saying that sex brings in its wake all the distractions of marriage and family. These certainly can be ordered to the Lord; but too often, they can make us forget our religious zeal.

On that note, he urges us to consider that, although Abraham was married, he was also chaste and holy. We should not presume that we could do the same thing. It is interesting to juxtapose this statement with his claim that no one should doubt that the grace will be there to live the religious life. Although Thomas does not say it in so many words, he too seems to think that the uncommon grace is not celibacy, but marriage. As Jesus said when discussing the high call of marriage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Not all are capable of this teaching, but only those to whom the gift is given.” Celibacy is the easier course.

Thomas explains the path of chaste, married sexuality in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 7.  The married person, he says, must find a way to conquer one aspect of sexual desire while allowing another aspect. Sexual pleasure and desire are, in themselves, a natural part of married sexuality; indeed, following Augustine, Thomas says that sex before the Fall would have been even more pleasant. But what must be conquered is the tendency of our sexuality to dominate us.

Thomas explains the path of chaste, married sexuality in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 7.  The married person, he says, must find a way to conquer one aspect of sexual desire while allowing another aspect. Sexual pleasure and desire are, in themselves, a natural part of married sexuality; indeed, following Augustine, Thomas says that sex before the Fall would have been even more pleasant. But what must be conquered is the tendency of our sexuality to dominate us.

Paul says, “it is better to marry than to burn.” In Thomas’s reading, this means that it is better for marriage and family life to rule over the overwhelming passion, which is sexuality, than for it to run wild on its own. This, of course, is also a nice explanation of what Paul means by calling sex a “debt,” and speaking of our bodies as “owned” by our spouses. Sex must be drawn beyond itself, and beyond selfishness, into the higher good of service to spouse and family.

Thomas agrees with modern exegetes, however, that Paul’s treatment of sexuality is pretty negative. Paul says marriage is “on account of fornication,” and that it is better to marry than “to burn.” If, as Thomas and much of the tradition believed, the grace of celibacy is universally available, then, he says, it is a little foolhardy to choose the more difficult path of sanctity that is marriage. Now, Thomas says it is not quite right to speak of marriage, which is a holy institution and a path to sanctity, in these terms. But he thinks Paul speaks this way precisely to indicate that he wishes more people would just choose celibacy.

Where does all this leave us? On the one hand, we must appreciate how sex is holy. It might be good to say “holy” instead of “good.” Ironically, the idea that celibacy is a sacrifice treats sex as a good in the same way that a candy bar is a good. But this view belongs to the contraceptive mentality; sex is not good in that way.

Sex is meant to be part of a relationship of service. In Matthew 19, the emphasis is on perpetual fidelity, which is a challenge. Indeed, as the culture around us so vividly demonstrates, marital fidelity itself requires us to “give up” many forms of sexual pleasure, including sexual perversions within marriage, pornography, extramarital affairs, divorce in search of greater romance, etc. Make no mistake: the polls may show that faithfully married couples are happier about their overall sex life, but if we just want to maximize genital pleasure, Catholic marriage is not the way to do it.

In 1 Corinthians 7, we are taken deeper into the same logic. We realize that the holiness of sex means laying down our life for our families. It means, among other things, that parenthood can be one of the greatest crosses imaginable. It means thinking of the other person, and not just of ourselves. This may sound romantic, but in fact, as Paul emphasizes, marriage is difficult, and a difficult path to sanctity. Celibacy is the easier road.

And so, on the other hand, we must appreciate that the holiness of sex only reemphasizes the holiness to which celibates are called. You get no points for just “giving up” sex. To the contrary, by itself, celibacy is more like a gift to self than a gift of self. What makes celibacy holy is what you do with all the spare time it gives you.

Vatican II commended married holiness for its “busy generosity.” When the celibate thinks of marriage, he should not pat himself on the back for giving up hot sex and a beer maid. He should look to that busy generosity, and be ashamed if he is giving any less of himself. He should think of just how often parents rise in the night to comfort frightened children, or to clean up beds soaked in vomit or urine, and ask himself whether he praises the Lord through the night. He should look to Jesus and see that he is worth a life of total self-offering.

A last reference to celibacy is in the last book of the Bible. A great crowd sings a new song to the Lord. “And no one could learn that song except that hundred and forty four thousand who were purchased from the earth. These are the ones who did not defile themselves with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the lamb wherever he goes. These are the ones who were purchased from among men, first fruits for God and for the lamb.”

Here, virginity is commended not as a good in itself, but as a path of following. The true holy virgin is the one who follows the lamb wherever he goes—the one who sacrifices not sexual pleasure, but his entire life.

It is worth questioning what virginity even means here. “The first fruits for God and for the lamb” surely include female virgins, not only males. But that means “the ones who did not defile themselves with women” can only be a partial description; surely they also have not defiled themselves with men. And, indeed, looking elsewhere in the book, we find that the hundred forty-four thousand is the symbol of all the elect, which certainly includes married people, as well as celibates.

It would seem, then, that the truest meaning of virginity and celibacy is not giving up sex, but being pure of heart enough to follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

 

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avatar About Dr. Eric M. Johnston, Ph.D.

Eric M. Johnston is an assistant professor of undergraduate theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University, and a father of five. He has published in The Thomist, Nova et Vetera, and Crisis. His research focuses on Thomas Aquinas' approach to nature and grace, marriage, political philosophy, and spirituality. He writes on spirituality at: http://professorjohnston.com .

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  1. [...] On the one hand, we must appreciate how sex is holy. It might be good to say “holy” instead of “good.” Ironically, the idea that celibacy is a sacrifice treats sex as a good in the same way that a candy bar is a good. But this view belongs to …read more [...]

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  3. [...] Combating the Contraceptive Understanding of Celibacy – Dr. Johnston Chesterton & Tolkien on Sanity & Reality – Philip Kosloski, In the West On Loving Everybody & Nobody – Fr. James V. Schall SJ, The Cthlc Thing The Ancient Recusant Family of Cornwall & Wiltshire – Roman …read more [...]

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