Celibacy as a mandate. Not the fun kind.

Celibacy as a mandate. Not the fun kind. October 29, 2012

Post #3 of 4 about questions I got on my speaking tour! This time the question was basically, “The Church’s position imposes celibacy as a blanket mandate on all gay people. This isn’t fair, and it isn’t how celibacy works: Celibacy is a calling from God to make of your body a living sacrifice. It isn’t something the Church imposes on a bunch of people because of who they’re attracted to.”

I think this question is based on a misunderstanding of vocation, but it does point to something important. The misunderstanding is the idea that all people whose vocations include or require celibacy perceive a specific call to celibacy. I think the truth is often, maybe more often, that celibacy is a consequence of the collision of vocation and historical circumstances. So someone might discern a call to be a priest. In the Eastern church, and the Western church in some times and places, this would have no consequence of celibacy. In most of the West today it does. But celibacy in this case is a consequence of vocation + circumstances, not (necessarily) a calling in itself. These priests may not perceive–and may not have–a specific, separate “calling to celibacy,” but that doesn’t change the fact that they need to honor their vows and live up to the discipline of the priesthood, including celibacy as one part of its sexual discipline.

One major difference between the celibacy of the priest and the celibacy of the gay or same-sex attracted layperson is that the priest’s sacrifice is acknowledged and honored, and his vocation is clear. Obviously that acknowledgment and honor is less today than it has been in other times and places, but it’s still just true that priests have sources of support and identity which are much less available to gay/same-sex attracted laypeople.

So maybe a way to reframe the initial question is to ask, “Why should we accept celibacy as the consequence of elements of a person’s life which already mark them out as marginalized and stigmatized? Does that sound like something God would do–separate a person from the love of their community and then deny them the love of a spouse?”

And once we’ve reframed things in this way, we can see that maybe what we should work on changing is the stigma, rather than the celibacy. If we can’t accept Church teaching because it seems to impose a difficult sacrifice on people who are already lonely and outcast, maybe it’s the “lonely and outcast” part we should be trying to change. Again, if we expanded our concept of vocation and honored other forms of love, I think this notion of celibacy as a uniquely awful form of lovelessness imposed on gay people would seem much less plausible.

I don’t think this is a full answer, in part because the initial question has several unexpressed premises. It assumes that there could be a vocation to gay relationships or gay marriage, which the Church is actively denying people. Obviously if there were such a vocation it would be right and necessary to follow it! But if we’re asking, instead, a) Is there a “call to celibacy” which is the only reason someone should give up the great good of Christian marriage? or b) I get that sometimes life circumstances, such as being a 15th-century Roman Catholic priest or being a layperson who simply hasn’t found the right person, require celibacy as a consequence, but isn’t it unfair that mere same-sex attraction should carry this burden?, then maybe the way I’m approaching things will help.

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