Saturday, 14 December 2013

Virginity, Chastity, and Celibacy –Gifts to the Consecrated but a burden in the Lay State?

I recently received an email from ‘Joe’ asking questions about the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Here is the central thrust of his email:

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” Pope John-Paul II teaches, “Virginity or celibacy...bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great, and hence must be sought as the only definitive value“..."the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism to that of marriage...”  I take that to mean that men who feel called to the Roman Catholic priesthood knowingly forgo any prospect of sexual intimacy. And it is likewise true that unmarried Catholic woman or men, gay or straight, are enjoined to live a lifetime of chastity, unfaltering in their resistance to libidinous temptations.

Single Catholics do not take a vow of chastity but they are held to its dictates with no warning or discernment as to whether or not they are have any talent or charism for a permanently virginal lifestyle. If total abstinence is so challenging for priests and nuns and religious men, unmarried Catholics might fittingly inquire why it is so automatically prescribed for their lives, especially in the cases where there is no “gift” and where, since there is no parvity of matter concerning sins against the Sixth Commandment, the consequence for any lapse is “grievous,” “grave,” mortal sin? 

I hope the writer will allow me to respond in a blog post since he asks questions of interest to many. While I’m happy to respond I’m not claiming to give ‘answers’, there are priests more theologically astute and more spiritually profound who can do that  far better than I. To the writer of the email I therefore respond with the following.

Joe, I think we must remember first of all that the ‘pearl of great price’ referred to by the Pope is the Kingdom of heaven, not celibacy; celibacy is that self-offering of a man or woman to God which bears witness to the fact that entering the Kingdom --where we do not marry cf. Mark 12v25-- is our ultimate goal and achievement. Our human relationships are an important aspect of life in this world; we are all made for relationship (ultimately with God for all eternity and in Him, to one another) and as such we should not be surprised by the experience of needing relationships with one another too.

Although those called to Catholic consecrated life knowingly forgo any prospect of physical intimacy and are gifted in grace by God so as to live the celibate life, this does not remove the struggle to remain celibate: grace allows us to enter into the struggle, but it is not magic and does not eliminate struggle. 

It is true that this gift is not seen as being given to those who are living their faith outside the consecrated life, but we need to note that there are many folk who live unmarried, chaste lives without religion as part of their world-view and who are not psychologically or emotionally disturbed by their chastity; they simply accept that they have not found a suitable life-partner. Such chastity is probably less common in today’s over-sexualised western culture but it is not absent from our history or from other cultures. As such, even though single Catholics are bound to chastity outside of marriage (as married folk are bound to fidelity within marriage) they are not thereby bound to something that is either entirely unnatural or impossible.

Since all human beings are share the flaw of a weak will, there will be failures in virginity before marriage; failures in fidelity within marriage and failures in celibacy by those in the consecrated life. These are more likely today in our over-sexualised culture.

It is from this the influence of this over-sexualised cultural that questions about the ability to live out chastity, celibacy etc arise. We should not underestimate the pervasive and powerful influence of this culture: it is one where physical intimacy for the sake of pleasure alone has been elevated to a status incongruent with the very nature of sex: its reproductive purpose of sex has been eliminated by contraception so that it becomes mere recreation, and its natural requirements for reproduction (male/female copulation) ignored to facilitate misdirected sexual urges (homosexual activity).

Failures to remain chaste outside of marriage and faithful within marriage do indeed constitute grave sin, but there are many ways in which we can fall into grave sin besides the sexual arena, and the wonder of our Faith is that we have a God who has loved us so much He has saved us from sin by His Passion, Death and resurrection, offering the forgiveness of sin to all who sincerely seek to leave sin behind and live in union with Him by the help of His grace.


  1. The Douay-Rheims translation renders Mark 12:25 as “For when they shall rise again from the dead, they shall neither marry, nor be married, but are as the angels in heaven.” The verse represents one of the core elements of the theology of Catholic eschatology. For same-sex attracted women and men even the faintest scintilla of eroticism is never above suspicion. In their case the human body that they inhabit is the fast track to mortal sin. Unfortunately for them they get a sexuality that is “objectively disordered” ”a deviation,” an irregularity,” “ a wound.” While a priest’s or consecrated man or woman’s celibacy points towards the Catholic vision of the eschatological human person, the celibacy of the homosexual person merely points back an accusing finger at brokenness, failure, representing the default for their pathetic circumstance.

    In his editorial in America Magazine On-Line for Novermber 15, 2009, Deacon Eric Stoltz
    offers the opinion that

    Church teaching also provides two entirely separate
    theologies of sexuality for gay and straight people.
    For straight people, sexuality is a gift from a good
    God rooted in the goodness of Creation. For gays
    and lesbians, sexuality is a burden from an indif-
    ferent God to test us, rooted in the experience of
    the Cross...This contradiction is not just a hole in
    the seamless garment, it is two entirely different

    Time after time after time SSA people are remonstrated with Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. But they never hear Ecclesiastes 4:9-11 (Douay-Rheims)

    9 It is better therefore that two should be together,
    than one: for they have the advantage of their society:
    10 If one fall he shall be supported by the other: woe
    to him that is alone, for when he falleth, he hath none
    to lift him up. 11 And if two lie together, they shall
    warm one another: how shall one alone be warmed?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dain.

      Rather than saying “For same-sex attracted women and men even the faintest scintilla of eroticism is never above suspicion” I would say no sexual orientation is without temptations and the possibility of sin.

      Certainly SSA people are afflicted with a wound in their sexuality, but dedicating their celibacy to God for [a] the good of their soul and [b[ as a witness to the need to avoid acting-out disordered orientations, can have an eschatological import; it does not have to be a pointed finger except in pointing out the opportunity to live a heroic life of virtue.

      I have to say that I’m not sure we can say we have two separate garments; we have one garment with variant opportunities for virtue. When I look at Ecclesiastes 4 -11 what I see is a text noting the sorrows and struggles of those who are friendless and without support in the toils of life, and not a text giving support to homosexual activity.


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