Few persons today believe that there is much sense in the vow of celibacy. In spite of this, celibacy remains common, far more common, in fact, than is generally admitted. Millions of people are celibate. For most of these, being alone in this way has nothing to do with wanting celibacy and even less with making religious vows. Most celibates are that way by conscription, not choice.
This is an important piece of information that should be brought out front and centre as we struggle with the question of consecrated celibacy within Catholicism. Today consecrated celibacy is under seige. Gone are the days, and this is a healthy sign, when celibacy was seen as a higher state, with marriage and sex considered as somehow second-rate, not noble but better than “burning in the flesh”. Today, the starting point for any theology of sexuality is that “it is not good to be alone”, that marriage and sexual union are what God intended as the norm.
Celibacy, therefore, is not normal. To be celibate, as Merton once put it, is to live in a loneliness that God himself condemned. Given that truth, more and more people, are saying that the church should never ask celibacy of anyone and that a commitment to vowed celibacy is not a sign of healthy life, but bespeaks rather a fear of sex.
That celibacy indicates an unhealthy theology of sex is far from true in every case. What is universally true is that celibacy is not, and can never be, the norm sexually. The universe works in pairs, from birds through humanity. And if this is so, what possible justification can there be for vowed celibacy? On what possible basis can the church ask celibacy from so many of its ministers? Why live celibacy, if one is not forced into it by unwanted circumstance?
Because Christ lived it. At the end of the day, that single line is the sole basis for any valid justification. But that line, itself, must be properly understood. Christ’s celibacy in no way suggests that celibacy is a higher state, nor that married people cannot, in their own way, imitate the manner in which Jesus incarnated himself as a sexual being. In fact, the proper way to ask the question is not: “Why did Christ remain celibate?”. Asked this way, the answer too easily suggests precisely that celibacy is a higher state. The question is more accurately put this way: “What did Christ try to say to us through the way he incarnated himself as a sexual being?” If asked this way, the answer to the question will have meaning for both married people and celibates.
So why did Christ incarnate his sexuality in this manner? What was he trying to teach us? Among many other things, through his celibacy, Christ was trying to tell us that love and sex are not always the same thing, that chastity, waiting, and inconsummation have an important role to play within the interim eschatological age we live in, and that, ultimately, in our sexuality we are meant to embrace everyone. But his celibacy had another purpose too. It was part of his solidarity with the poor.
How so? Simply put, when Christ went to bed alone at night he was in real solidarity with the many persons who, not by choice but by circumstance, sleep alone. And there is a real poverty, a painful searing one, in this kind of aloneness. The poor are not just those who are more manifestly victimized by poverty, violence, war, and unjust economic systems. There are other less obvious manifestations of poverty, violence, and injustice. Enforced celibacy is one of them.
Anyone who is because of unwanted circumstance (physical unattractiveness, emotional instability, advanced age, geographical separation, frigidity or uptightness, bad history, or simple bad luck) effectively blocked from enjoying sexual consummation is a victim of a most painful poverty. This is particularly true today in a culture that so idealizes sexual intimacy and the right sexual relationship. To sleep alone is to be poor. To sleep alone is to be stigmatized. To sleep alone is to outside the norm for human intimacy and to feel acutely the sting of that.
When Jesus went to bed alone he was in solidarity with that pain, in solidarity with the poor. A vow of celibacy, whatever its negatives, also does that for a person, it puts him or her into a privileged solidarity with a special kind of poverty, the loneliness of those who sleep alone, not because they want to, but because circumstance denies them from enjoying one of the deepest human experience that there is, sexual consummation.