Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 2, Feb. 6, 1999



Part 2

We have discussed celibacy as encompassing two presumptions: the presumption of being unmarried and abstinent (cf.  Weber's definition in Part 1).  In this section we propose to demonstrate that, in the final analysis, celibacy and abstinence are separate issues, although it has been to the Roman Catholic Church's advantage to twin the two concepts. By identifying celibacy and abstinence, the Church is able to maintain the political and economic power discussed in the previous section and, at the same time, keep in place the sex negative attitudes that originated with the Church Fathers and flourished in monastic environments down the centuries.  When we wrench celibacy and abstinence apart, we find that we are dealing with separate issues, although we have been led to believe that they are, for all practical purposes, the same issue.  We propose that they are not.  If you "pull the rug out" from under the celibacy issue, you still have to deal with the abstinence dust under the rug.  Our contention is that celibacy and abstinence rest on two different power-bases: celibacy rests on the Church's lust for political and economic power; abstinence rests on the Church's need to control people by controlling their sex lives ("You don't control a people until You control their sex lives" according to the old truism) which it does by upholding the sex negative teachings of the Church Fathers that were preserved down the centuries by the powerful ascetical element within the Church.


As we demonstrated in the previous section, economics played no small part in the establishment of MANDATORY celibacy.  We think it reasonable to assume that calculators would click furiously were dismantling MANDATORY celibacy ever to become a serious consideration in the Roman Catholic Church.  Should that day come, abstinence might well take a back seat to the larger issue of infrastructure.

The hereditary lines that Rome had struggled so hard to abolish would be re-established and priests would pass along property to their own children, maybe even property that was given to them in grateful acknowledgment of their ministrations by wealthy benefactors.  Only within the last twenty-five years, approximately, did priests become salaried.  Though given free housing and food, priests had to depend on stipends for income, that is, free offerings given at the time of weddings, funerals and baptisms.  When salaries were introduced, they were well below the standards established in society, for professionals and still do not measure up to professional standards.  Dismantling celibacy would change that economic reality drastically because no married priest could support a family or maintain a home at current salary levels.

One spin-off of a new economic reality resulting from a change in MANDATORY celibacy would be a serious decline in funds available to support the Roman Catholic education system.  Though the education system was put in place originally as a garrison to protect Catholic youth against Protestant and Humanistic influences, today the system is considered vital to the proper transmission of Roman Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  The Roman Catholic hierarchy is very protective of its educational system, especially its primary schools.  More money to support married priests would leave less for the educational system -- an option the Church does not have the stomach to entertain.

Therefore, it is our contention that the Church, by maintaining MANDATORY celibacy, is trying to serve God and mammon, something its Master said could not be done.  (Luke 16:13)


Just as a change in MANDATORY celibacy would alter the economic reality of the Church, such a change would also alter the political reality.  The former and current Political power of the Church depends -for its life on an ancient anthropology: the inferiority of women.  It was this anthropology that surfaced recently in the form of hysteria when the Episcopal Church voted to ordain women to priesthood.  This hysteria, to quote historian Carter Heyward, "reveals the pathology that underlies the exclusion of women from ministry." (Heyward, 1976  p.107). It was a well entrenched anthropology that found support and solace in a selective reading of Paul, in statements such as:
 "man is the head of woman" and,
 "woman is the reflection of man's glory” and
 "A woman ought not to speak ... it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin." (1 Corinthians 11 :3; 11;8; I Tim. 2: 1 3) .
All the "equality statements” of Paul were glossed over in favor of statements that supported the entrenched anthropology.  The modern challenge to that anthropology raises flags as crimson as their robes before the eyes of the Church's hierarchy.  Should that anthropology be dislodged, one plank of the political power base on which MANDATORY celibacy rests would collapse.

The most serious modern threat to the power base on which MANDATORY celibacy rests comes, then, from a new political power within the Church: contemporary women.  When celibacy was introduced, it happened at a time in history when woman was seen as part of man's property.  In seizing the property of its priests, the Church was able to "seize" women as priestly property -- a disposable part of the total property.  Contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Rosemary Ruether, traces the exclusion of women back to the second and third centuries and claims that the Jesus movement offered an alternative to the entrenched anthropology, that the Church, in fact, is not faithful to the gospels: "It (the Church) routinized the power of the Spirit as automatically transmitted through apostolic succession and thus illegitimatized any prophecy not under episcopal control."  (Ruether, 1983. p.196). The recent emphasis on gifts, rather  than on credentials, as the validation source of all ministry poses a serious threat to the power base that supports celibacy  which , in turn , supports an outdated anthropology.

It is our contention, then, that the power base on which celibacy rests will not collapse until a new anthropology replaces the old.  Cracks have appeared.  There was a time when the cynics were sure of a negative response to: "Who wants a pregnant woman at the altar?"  Not any more.

The revisionist challenge to the Church, then, is merely symbolized in the current struggle to have the law of MANDATORY celibacy changed.  Behind this struggle is a prophetic call to gospel simplicity, gospel freedom, gospel humility, gospel justice.  History, however, teaches us that powerful institutions divest themselves of power very reluctantly and only if they see such divestiture as necessary for survival.


Not only did MANDATORY celibacy originate in political and economic considerations. it was also a logical consequence of the sex negative attitudes of the Church, attitudes that skill-fully confused celibacy and abstinence.  Our reading of history leads us to believe that a key pivotal event was Augustine's re-interpretation of the Adam and Eve story.  Not that this one event, in and of itself, placed the Christian Church on a sex negative course but, rather, it pulled together the many strands of sex negative attitudes that, up to that time, were spokes in a wheel that had no hub.  Augustine's re-interpretation of the Adam
and Eve myth was the hub to which the spokes attached themselves.

"Early Christians," writes Ira Reiss, "read the story of Adam and Eve as symbolizing the importance of human freedom ... What others saw in the story of Adam and Eve as human freedom, Augustine saw as human bondage." (Reiss. 1990, pp. 193-194).  Elaine Pagels of Princeton University who has specialized in that period of Church history would agree:  "Adam's sin was not sexual indulgence but disobedience: thus ... the real theme of the story of Adam and Eve is moral freedom and moral responsibility...for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3.11 (Pagels, 1988. pp.  23-25).

The real clue, we believe, lies in the fact that Augustine was not against marriage -- therefore logically, not opposed to a married clergy -- but he despised the concupiscence that accompanied all sexual activity.  His problem, then, was not with marriage as a state-in-life but with concupiscence as a state of fallen humanity.  He wished -For a return to "the good old days" of pre-Fall Eden when people could have all the sex they  wanted devoid of concupiscence : "Without the seductive stimulus of passion , with calmness of mind and with no corrupting of the integrity of the body, the husband would lie on the bosom of his wife ... No wild heat of passion would arouse those parts of his body ... The semen would have been introduced into the womb of the wife with the integrity of the female organs being preserved, just as now with the same integrity being preserved, the menstrual -flow of blood can be emitted from the womb of a virgin ... Thus, not the eager desire of lust but the normal exercise of the will should join the male and female for breeding and conception." ("The City of God" 14.26).  Since concupiscence was a consequence of the Fall, redemption resided in abstinence -- not in celibacy.  As far as Augustine was concerned, man's penis was not under the full control of his will because of Adam and Eve, therefore, an erect penis symbolized man's defiance of God.

Not even the waters of baptism could remove that one remnant of the Fall -- concupiscence.  Celibacy and virginity were merely spin-off issues to Augustine.  The nexus was abstinence.  Historian John Boswell believes that all of Augustine's sexual attitude can be reduced to one simple idea: erotic love is always sinful, within or outside marriage.  Marriage is not the real issue,  eroticism is. (Boswell, 1980, p.165). It appears to us, as stated earlier, that there were many sex negative voices, voices that did not coalesce until Augustine's sexual interpretation of Genesis acted as a tuning fork that centered a cacophony of disparate voices on a single note.  Augustine successfully united the anti erotic, pro abstinence Church theologians into one mighty chorale thus setting the stage for the establishment of forced abstinence that would carry the name "celibacy."  Morton and Barbara Kelsey, reflecting on the consequence of sex negativism in the Church Fathers, write: "When celibacy is practiced because sexuality is perceived as evil, it can become demonic and repressive." (Kelsey, 1986, p.177).   Feminist author, Mary Daly, argues that the sex negative attitudes of the Christian Church were born of a need to protect the patriarchal system that dogmas such as The Virgin Birth, "stripped all women of the integrity, for the female was transformed into little more than a hollow eggshell, a void waiting to be made by the male" (Daly, 1978. p.83).

However, it was not all one-way.  Augustine was opposed mightily by Julian, an influential bishop from Southern Italy.  They argued back-and-forth for twelve years.  Julian refused to accept Augustine's pessimistic view of people's inability to exercise control and Augustine's proposition that the personal act of Adam and Eve resulted in an original sin being passed to every human being by sexual conception.  Julian interpreted the Adam and Eve myth as a lesson in freedom -- we can say "yes" or "no" to evil.  Elaine Pagels sums up the debate between Augustine and Julian this way: "Augustine assumes that frustrated desire is universal, infinite, and all-consuming ... For Julian, sexual desire is innocent, divinely blessed, and, once satisfied, entirely finite.  Sexual desire, as Julian sees it, offers us the opportunity to exercise our capacity for moral choice." (Pagels,  p.141).

Raymond Lawrence Jr. believes that in this debate between the optimist (Julian) and the pessimist (Augustine), Augustine was the more realistic of the two.  He writes: "No one steeped in Augustine would have been surprised at the rise of power of Hitler."  However,  Lawrence says that Augustine, though correct about people's capacity for evil, was wrong when he "identified the root of evil with sex." (Lawrence, p.122). For Augustine, then, the heart of the matter was not marriage, but sex.  Later, the Roman Catholic Church would claim that "outside the church there is no redemption." Augustine had come up with a similar absolute centuries earlier: "outside sex there is redemption.”  Sex was of Satan because, as Peter Brown noted, Augustine  believed that sexual desire "clashes inevitably and permanently with reason." (Brown, 1967, p.389).

The culprit was not marriage, but sex.  Original sin was passed along WITHIN marriage BY sex.  Jerome, Origen, Tertuilian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and a host of theologians to follow over the centuries found in Augustine one who could articulate better than anyone what they all believed -- that sex is the root of all evil, even though Jesus had said that greed was.  Augustine not only "re-wrote" the Adam and Eve story, he also "re-wrote" the gospel, for neither Yahweh nor Jesus had ever said that abstinence was necessary for redemption.

While advocating abstinence, then, Augustine did not condemn marriage.  Procreation, he believed, was the one redeeming feature of marriage.  However, he expected abstinence in marriage unless procreation were the reason for sexual activity.  "Marriage he wrote, " is better in proportion as they begin the earlier to refrain by mutual consent from sexual intercourse ... Furthermore, continence from all intercourse is better than marital intercourse itself which takes place for the sake of begetting children.  (Deferrari, 1955, p.13).

When we reach back into history, then, we find that the subsequent celibacy issue was, at heart, an abstinence issue at its deepest core.  We find, for instance, that popes and synods begin to reflect the thinking of Augustine.  Pope Siricius (383-399) and the Synod of Carthage (390) seek to impose sexual continence on married bishops, priests and deacons.  Celibacy is not the issue.  Abstinence is.  The old Hebrew notion of ritual purity is revived.  The minister at the altar must be pure and abstinence was the way to purity.  Intercourse was to be avoided on nights before the celebration of Eucharist.  Quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures were marshaled in support of this restriction (e.g. Exodus 19:15;1 Sam. 21:5-7; Lev. 15:16. ff; 22:4). (Baus, 1980, pp. 270-280).

As the abstinence restrictions became more austere, celibacy, though not yet mandated, became an unavoidable consequence for those who took the abstinence restrictions seriously.  More and more occasions for abstinence were added, so much so,
that de facto celibacy was in place before mandatory celibacy, at least for the ascetics, the obedient, and the scrupulous.

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