Someone who knows I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center sent me a recent article from Medicine Anthropology Theory, “Blessing unintended pregnancy: Religion and the discourse of women’s agency in public health.” It’s a qualitative study of the reproductive histories and practical spirituality of women at a homeless shelter in the Southeast. The things the women say really sound like things our clients say; but what struck me most was how much of their experiences resonated with the religious experiences of gay Christians who accept the historic Christian teaching on homosexuality. For example:
# Passion is an action. The study’s authors emphasize that women often don’t believe in exercising the kind of careful control over reproduction that public-health workers push on them. They often don’t think it’s right to interfere too much in God’s work of bringing children into the world. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that birth control often doesn’t “work” for them, for a lot of reasons. “Woman plans, God laughs,” basically.
And yet this acceptance of God’s sovereignty is its own form of agency. Acceptance is an action the woman herself must take and own. Mary’s “Fiat voluntas tua” was an act of Mary’s agency. Surrender is an act. We fail to honor God’s work in our lives when we refuse to acknowledge our own participation in our salvation; our acceptance of His will is only made possible by His grace, but we still do actually have to do it.
Acceptance can feel like helplessness. It can feel humiliating, and in an American context (I don’t know about other cultures) it can even feel immoral, like you’re just wallowing, willfully refusing to take the steps that would improve your life and achieve happiness. This study rescues the concept of acceptance and reframes it (accurately) as a form of action and an expression of agency.
# Nobody lives Christian sexual discipline fully. The women in this study mostly share a pretty deep spirituality of acceptance and surrender, and a recognition that a child is always a blessing. But some of them have had abortions. Some of them use birth control; one had her tubes tied, and although she wrestled with the moral implications of that before she did it, she still went ahead with it.
One major lacuna in the study is the relative absence of any discussion of the morality of premarital/nonmarital sex. It’s not even raised as a concern. That’s a huge disservice done to women by their culture and their religious communities. But even bracketing the question of sex outside of marriage, women under a lot of cultural and economic pressure make choices around reproduction that don’t always reflect either historic Christian teaching or their own spiritualities. That doesn’t make their spiritual lives insincere. It just means that it’s really hard and complicated to know what to do and to live it out in a culture, local subculture, and economy with little support for the Christian sexual ethic.
So too with celibate gay people. We really wrestle with whether and how to live out (what I believe to be) God’s will for us. If you interviewed the celibate gay people I know you’d find stories that parallel these women’s stories: Stories about dating, about trying to figure out if you’re dating, about ambivalence, despair, promiscuity, seeking a church, leaving church, repentance, sacrifice, confusion, hope. Stories about wondering whether it’s okay to (for example) get a civil marriage license, in places where domestic partnerships and civil unions have been phased out, so that the partner/beloved friend/sister in Christ with whom you share your life can get health insurance or avoid economic ruin in other ways. Stories about dating that becomes celibate partnership, or vice versa. (NB: All of these examples have happened to more than one person/family I know.) Just a lot of complexity, all lived out by people who are trying to surrender their lives to God and trust in His tender love for them.
Sometimes I think it’s good that Christian sexual discipline is so incredibly hard to live out. Our repeated failures mean we can never think we’re capable of achieving our own salvation; I hope they humble us and make us slower to judge others. Other times I think that’s a cavalier way to think about sexual sin, which often harms lots of other people and/or creates deep, degrading shame. I guess it could be both true and cavalier, Catholicism is all about the both/and…. At the very least, I will say that God orders our lives so tenderly that even our sins, confusions, and “defects of character” can serve Him if we let them, by turning our hearts toward Him and humbling our exalted ideas of our own goodness or power.And people who aren’t fully living out the Christian sexual ethic (or even their own sexual ethic!) nonetheless often make heroic sacrifices for God: “In several cases, getting pregnant was, by their own account, among the reasons they became homeless. Yet these women nevertheless tended to frame motherhood as either a catalyst for positive change or as a ‘blessing’ whose very nature defies human planning and control.”
# We don’t choose which blessings we get; we accept our vocations more often than we choose them. This is probably the biggest theme of the article. I wrote about this here.
# It is really hard to live out God’s will for you when you have no economic support. I’ll be writing more on this soon, but I realized recently that seriously 99% of the abortion-minded women I’ve counseled name one factor pushing them toward abortion: lack of stable housing.
And the same thing is true when you can’t trust people in power. For these women it might be abusive partners or foster parents, or, in one woman’s case, a sexually-abusive doctor. Celibacy too is harder when you’re struggling to heal from sexual abuse, or when you’re coming from a church where the pastor and other leaders don’t respect you and abuse your trust.
# Seek the blessings in catastrophe. The women in this study–like a lot of women I’ve counseled–used an unplanned/crisis pregnancy as a catalyst and a “reality check.” Many of them changed their lives to begin to support the child in their womb: “Deshauna describes her decision to have a child at the age of sixteen as an opportunity to leave her abusive childhood home and get off drugs.”
The pregnancy forces honesty about your needs and your economic circumstances, and the consequences of your actions. Beyond the obvious blessing of the child, there are many other blessings that can be found in crisis pregnancy.
I wish we saw more of this perspective in discussions of gay Christian celibacy. We didn’t choose this way of life, it’s scary and challenging and can have severe economic consequences–but there can be blessings here as well. People whose spirituality was overly focused on accomplishment have to accept that their sexual orientation is not something they can “fix”; people who viewed God as an angry parent begin to see that He can cherish them even when they don’t know how to love themselves. There are blessings of community, of perspective (being marginalized is good for the soul), sometimes of radical freedom to serve. We can offer the gift of solidarity: Like one mother in the MAT study, we can “tell my testimony and help others.”
Tim Otto writes about the blessings of celibacy here (and he does the counterpoint here!) and see also Brent Bailey re being gay as a Christian (& his counterpoint). I’d love to hear more of this stuff. And I suspect that honesty about the hardships of celibacy is a necessary precondition for finding the blessings in it–the MAT study draws that connection and I think they’re right.
Can we begin to view celibacy as an unplanned, even an unwanted honor, the way “Janine” in this study views her pregnancy?