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




Part 3

In the first part of our paper, we described the power bases on which the law of mandatory celibacy would come to rest, how the various forces of history came together to make mandatory celibacy as good as inevitable in the light of Rome's thrust for power through centralization and by its insistence on achieving unity through conformity.

In this section, we have demonstrated that the dismantling of mandatory celibacy would mean that the Church would have to rely on the power of the gospel for its moral authority and would have to supplant an old sexist anthropology with one that was gender pure.  Such a reversal of history, such a self divesting of power and prejudice, is not likely to come from those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.  It will only come through enlightenment born of authentic prophecy.

Finally, we touched on what we feel is the heart of the matter, namely, sex negativism.  Although we excoriated Augustine in our treatment, we are conscious of the fact that Augustine had been subjected, as a youth, to sex negativism, to the teaching of Mani in particular.  Our complaint is that other "gospels" were allowed to corrupt the original gospels, that abstinence came to masquerade as celibacy, that celibacy discredits the Church because, in the words of Shakespeare, it is "seen more in the breach than in the observance."

What, then, of OPTIONAL celibacy?  We believe that our thesis has made it clear that optional celibacy is a legitimate way-of-life for Christians provided it carries with it none of the trappings of history: that it is not entered into to support the political or economic power of the institution, that it is not an attempt to impose a particular brand of ascetical spirituality on those who find sexuality and spirituality entirely compatible, that it is not powered by a disgust for or a discomfort with sex, that it is not an escape from the challenge of intimacy, that it is not grounded in an anthropology of patriarchal dominance, that, most of all it is supportive of those who are sexual.

Celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom" is authentic only if it meets two criteria: one, it is chosen to serve the right Kingdom -- the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the institutional Church -- and, two, purified of the trappings of history and negative theologies, the celibate is able to celebrate the gift of sexuality.  If one or both criteria are not met, then we propose that what appears on the outside as optional celibacy is, in reality, mandatory celibacy, which, in turn, is nothing more than the surrender of one's freedom in the service of an institution mandated to advance the cause of freedom.  Thus, the gospel of freedom becomes a gospel of bondage and the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 19:12: "Let anyone accept this who can" are processed by the institutional Church to its own institutional advantage and come to be translated: "Let anyone accept this whether he can or not."


With just an occasional look at the thinking of some modern theologians and sexual ethicists, we have, for the most part, discussed celibacy (the renunciation of marriage) and abstinence (the renunciation of all sexual activity) with a heavy emphasis on the past.  Indeed, we have done what the Roman Catholic Church does best -- we have thought in centuries without sufficient alertness to the changes taking place in our own century.  In this final section, then, we would like to consider celibacy and abstinence in the context of our times.  Although "the old guard" is putting up a stubborn resistance, we believe that there is a "changing of the guard" evidenced in the emergence of a sexual ethic that is less concerned about moral absolutes and more about the attainment of personal growth and freedom.  Therefore, celibacy and abstinence are issues that can no longer be considered in isolation.  They are just pieces in a grand mosaic being fashioned by today's prophets who clamor for a return to the justice and freedom promised by the gospels.  These voices in the wilderness may be silenced, but the promise remains that, if they are silenced, then, "the very stones will cry out", for when it comes to change propelled by truth, "how do you stop a wave upon the strand, how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand"?

Just as many of the Church Fathers had clustered around Augustine because he articulated their views on sexuality best, so, too did ethicists of this century who began to question the notion of moral absolutes critically, find their probings supported either in the notion of fundamental option developed by the Hungarian Jesuit, Ladislas Boros, or in the teachings of Paul Tillich.  Boros proposed that salvation depended, not so much on individual good choices or bad choices but, rather, on the fundamental inner-directedness of one's life towards goodness -- the fundamental option.  This was seen by Rome as reductionism whereby all moral absolutes were reduced to one -- the fundamental choice to direct one's life to goodness, thus reducing "slips along the way" to no more than occasional and reversible wrong turns on the highway to salvation.  Thus, for example, a question like "is sex outside of marriage sinful?" is not answered, according to the fundamental option proponents, by an absolute yes or no but, rather, within the context of the bigger question is your life directed towards good or evil?

Then there was Paul Tillich who spoke for those who believed that there was only one moral absolute -- agape.  Tillich wrote : "Love, agape, offers a principle of ethics that maintains an eternal, unchangeable element, but makes its realization dependent on continuous acts of a creative intuition. Love is above law, and also above the natural law in Stoicism and the supranatural law in Catholicism." (Tillich, 1963, p.88).

Even before Boros or Tillich put pen to paper, Rome sniffed trouble in the air as it monitored the new thinking on college campuses throughout Europe.  Thus, in an allocution given by Pope Pius the Twelfth in 1952 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1952, xliv, pp. 413-19) the pope named the new thinking "existential" and "situational' and condemned it roundly.  Four years later, what was then known as "The Holy Office" (called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith today) forbade the new teachings in Roman Catholic colleges and seminaries.  From our foregoing study of celibacy as an instrument of power and control, it should be clear that a Church, structured hierarchically, claiming infallibility in matters of faith and morals, giving almost equal authority to scripture and its own magisterium, grounded in absolutes, would not stand idly by as moral absolutes were relativized in favor of an ethic that offered individuals no more than “generalizations” like love and fundamental option when making moral decisions.  The masses needed direction spelled out in specifics deduced from absolutes.  The new ethical thinking was anathema to a church that, for centuries, had determined the moral content of every thought, word and deed for the masses, a church that saw in moral absolutes a reflection of its own absolute power.

The new thinking would not go away despite a flurry of decrees, allocutions and condemnations.  Pope John Paul the Second decided to excise the dry rot once and for all. In October 1993, he issued his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of the Truth") making it abundantly clear which truth was to be considered splendorous -- the moral absolutes taught by the church's magisterium which the encyclical calls " timeless and immutable truths.  "The church does not propose values for the enlightenment of the faithful, rather, those values are proposed for the obedience of the faithful. Every sexual act outside of marriage, including masturbation, is declared intrinsically evil.  The role of the theologian is re-defined: theologians do not exist for the scholarly and systematic exploration of Christian truths but, rather, their goal must be to articulate accurately the truths proposed by the magisterium.  Thus, dissent is outlawed and debate is curtailed.  "it would be a serious error to conclude that the church's teaching is essentially only an 'ideal' which must then be adapted, proportioned or graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to the balancing of the goods in question." (encyclical, par. 103).  The pope was not going to tolerate the reaction that the encyclical "Humanae Vitae", which outlawed artificial methods of contraception, had received from the Catholic faithful, a majority of whom had shown themselves to have been "infected" by Boros and Tillich by their determination to make up their own minds about artificial means of contraception.

"We touch here on the key to the whole document", writes veteran Vaticanologist, Peter Hebbelthwaite.  "In the papal view there is not just a gap but a huge chasm between a morality based on God's divine intention (heteronomy) and one based on the best we can do according to human reason (autonomy)".  (Hebbelthwaite, 1993, p. 8).  The encyclical, then, attempts to bolt the church door on the wild horse of new ethical thinking by establishing, for one thing, that abstinence for the unmarried is an absolute that cannot be moderated by circumstances or by the individual conscience.  Smarting from the revolt against its magisterial authority with "Humanae Vitae", John Paul's encyclical was out for the blood of theologians who would teach anything other than moral absolutes, even proposing that bishops remove theologians from their teaching posts if they dared to question the magisterial teaching.  Peter's sword was out of its scabbard.

The question, however, is: was the door closed after the horse had bolted?  Even though he wrote many years before  "Veritatis Splendor," Paul Tillich's reading of history would suggest that the horse had indeed bolted: "The church must adapt its ethical system to new problems and new demands," Tillich writes.  "The Catholic church has been able to do just this, admirably, for centuries and the living authority of the Pope is still a marvelous instrument for achieving adaptations without losing its immovable basis. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Catholic church did not fully succeed in dealing with the presuppositions and demands of the bourgeois era". (Tillich, p.84) Translated into American terms, the Catholic church in America met the poor and ignorant immigrants at dock-side, educated them in private schools, fashioned them into a bourgeoisie, then was appalled to think that the people it educated would dissent from the Church's ethical teachings as they did following the publication of "Humanae Vitae." Rome realized that it needed to prop up the first domino of moral absolutes for, if the teaching on artificial contraception could be ripped apart by the dogs of dissent, could abstinence and celibacy be far behind?

Individual fires of resistance were stamped out as, for instance, the removal of America's leading moral theologian, Father Charles Curran, from his teaching position at Catholic University in Washington D.C.  But damage control was proving to be a monumental operation because the new ethical thinking had filtered down to the newly educated masses and Rome had trouble making the awareness-transition from the pliable uneducated peasantry of Europe to the new bourgeoisie that it had it self spawned through its own educational system.  It was a classic case of being hoisted on your petard.


The old apposition of sex and sin was falling apart as new ways of connecting sex and spirituality were explored.  Roman Catholic theologian, Joan Timmerman, St. Catherine's College in St. Paul, became a persona no grata in episcopal eyes for raising questions about the sexuality of Jesus and by her insistence on calling the church to recognize the full implications of the Incarnation.  "Christian understanding of spiritual formation is incarnational.  That means that freedom, ecstasy, openness are performed in the flesh, not by escaping from it ... The scandal of the incarnation and the eucharist is also the "scandal" of sexuality as a path for spiritual growth.” (Timmerman, 1992, p. 24).  Church authorities were flabbergasted at the suggestion that sex, tainted by sinful concupiscence ever since Augustine's reinterpretation of Genesis, might be tainted by grace.  This was opening up a whole can of ethical worms that could undermine abstinence as an absolute and raise uncomfortable questions about clerical celibacy, for, if sex can be a medium of grace, how can the church stand in opposition to graced experiences?  It was critical that "Veritatis Splendor" maintain the sex-sin connection.

John Robinson discusses what he calls "the supranaturalist ethic".  An ethic that, in his words, "derives its norm from "out there”, and this is, of course its strength ... And yet this heteronomy is also its profound weakness.  Except to the man who believes in 'the God out there' it has no compelling sanction or self authenticating foundation.  It cannot answer the question 'Why is this wrong?' in terms of the intrinsic realities of the situation itself."  (Robinson, 1963, p.112). By an ironic paradox, the Church that has been leading the faithful in recent decades to consider the 'God within' as the source of human dignity, was now finding that the 'God out there' had more moral clout.  Yet another instance of trying to extricate yourself from your own web.  We agree with Jim Nelson, United Church of Christ ethicist, when he writes: "A shift is occurring, from understanding sexuality as either incidental to or detrimental to the experience of God, to understanding sexuality as intrinsic to the divine human experience." (Nelson, 1988, p. 116).

Incarnational theology is coming of age and will have a profound effect on how we view our sexuality.  Even the popular writer-priest, Andrew Greely, whose skill is sociology rather than theology or ethics, is obviously influenced by Incarnational theology when he writes: "If the sexual union is a sacrament of the Christ-event, then we need not fear its terrors and can more readily give ourselves over to its pleasures". (Greely, 1976, p.123). Theologian Bernard Cooke is mindful of the fact that "the first and immediate aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve as life giving is their sexual partnership", and he goes on to say that "This experience of human love can make the mystery of divine love for humans credible.  On the contrary, if a person does not experience love in his or her life, only with great difficulty can the revelation of divine love be accepted as possible." (Cooke,  1983, pp. 83 & 86).

Set against this backdrop of changing ethical attitudes and the emergence of a new Incarnational theology, it would appear that the days of abstinence as a timeless absolute are numbered as agape assumes its rightful place of centrality in the Christian economy and as Christians come to see themselves as "words made flesh".  The more such thinking takes hold, the more will celibacy be seen as an anachronism.


The understatement of the century has to be the remark of Roman Catholic French theologian Jacques-Marie Pohier "After spending several years on the problem of pleasure and Christianity, I would say this: Christianity has a unique problem in regard to pleasure." (Bockle &  Pohier, 1976, p. 108). The Church developed a theology of work (God the creator; Joseph, the worker) and balanced the work scale with a theology of leisure (rest on the sabbath, retreats).  It developed a theology of pain (the redemptive value of suffering endured in union with the Crucified), but it never balanced the pain scale with a theology of pleasure.  Such a theology would get the church mired in the muddy waters of sexual pleasure and, since Augustine, the Church had little that was positive to say about sexual pleasure.  Modern theologians and ethicists, however, are beginning to confront the issue of pleasure.  United Church of Christ ethicist, James Nelson writes: "the gospel's eternal paradox is characteristic of pleasure: the one who directly searches for it as the major goal will never find pleasure as fully as the one who is willing to let go in creativity, commitment and love.  Yet a cloud of churchly suspicion still hangs over pleasure".  In speaking of sexual pleasure, Nelson uses a language that used to be the preserve of spiritual writers, language that describes the sexual experience as "self-transcendence " and "communion" and "ecstasy".  "Sensual pleasure," Nelson concludes, "is a gift of divine grace". (Nelson, 1978, pp. 87-90).

Roman Catholic theologian Mary Hunt says that the theology of Christ suffering in obedience to the Father (which she calls "divine child abuse") has resulted in the faithful seeing their own sufferings as divinely willed, consequently, they have no right to pleasure.  She quotes, approvingly, the statement of two Methodist theologians, Joanna Brown and Rebecca Parker: "Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering.  If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must be liberated from this theology." The Church, Hunt concludes, "has robbed people of pleasure in the name of salvation, a price few in the contemporary period are willing to pay." (Hunt, 1992, p. 20).  Dutch pastoral therapist, Woet Gianotten. maintains that the Church's problem with pleasure results from its problem with the body: "The Churches have had a complicated relationship with the human body ... Instead of being a source of joy and beauty, the body was frequently reduced to being a source of evil and seduction and was limited to the function of procreation." (Gianotten,  p. 111).

These tentative efforts to construct a theology of sexual pleasure follow on the pioneering work begun by Methodist minister Rev.  Dr. Ted McIlvenna, founder of The Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, whose work "Meditations on the Gift of Sexuality" anticipated current efforts to develop a theology and spirituality of human sexuality by twenty years.  In the introduction to this prophetic work, Dr. McIlvenna states: " It is my belief that God is active in the great spiritual movements of our time.  One of these movements is the movement for sexual meaning ... Why, then, is it strange to think about finding God in the many forms of our sexuality?" (McIlvenna, 1977)


We believe that the Spirit, guaranteed to remain with the Christian Church until the end of time, has unleashed a new Pentecost.  This new outpouring of the Spirit may result in a babble of tongues as different theologies, philosophies, ideologies and ethical systems compete for dominance.  Yet, when the Spirit enlightens the Christian Church, we believe that the resultant tension is, ultimately, a creative tension that must be expected when you put new wine into old wineskins.

The Council of Trent made mandatory celibacy a non-negotiable item and the Second Vatican Council reinforced Trent: "Aided by appropriate helps, both divine and human, may they learn so to integrate the renunciation of marriage into their life and activity that these will not suffer any detriment from celibacy..." (Decree of Vatican II "Optatum Totius" par. 10).  However, this latter Council made an interesting observation when speaking of celibacy: "It (celibacy) is not, indeed, demanded by the very nature of the priesthood." (Decree of Vatican 11 "Presbyterorum Ordinis", par. 16). In a July audience (1993), Pope John Paul the Second repeated the same thought: “Celibacy," he said, "does not belong to the essence of the priesthood.  Jesus didn't make a law but proposed an ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood that he was establishing."  (National Catholic Reporter, 1993).

Although there is no moderation of the Church's insistence on total sexual abstinence outside of marriage, there are some subtleties in Vatican II that are worthy of note.  For instance, the unitive purpose of marriage is given priority over the procreative.  There is only one vague reference to Augustine's teaching on concupiscence.  Acts of intercourse, prompted by love, are described as "noble and worthy." Also, sex as a holistic experience  is recognized: "It involves the good of the whole person." Whereas, formerly, the intention to procreate was the essential requirement for marriage, the Council sees friendship as a distinguishing feature of a good marriage.  Society is warned not to pressure young people into marriage: "At the same time, no pressure, direct or indirect, should be put on the young to make them enter marriage or choose a specific partner." (Vatican 11 Decree: Gaudium et Spes, pars. 49 & 52) . Certainly, there is nothing here to indicate the emergence of a new
ethical system.  However, the Council went further than any previous Council in recognizing positive values in sex, in giving intimacy priority over procreation, in limiting itself to one negative stab at "mere" erotic inclination.


We would like to conclude this section of our study with what may appear as the height of arrogance and invoke the man whom we have called to task many times in this paper.  We call on Augustine to frame what we have had to say about celibacy and abstinence in a positive light, for, if Augustine had logically applied his own dictum, sexual ethics in the Christian Church may have run a whole different course.  It was Augustine who summed up the true course of sexual ethics when he said: "Dilige et quod vis fac" (Ep . Joan.  Vll, 5)

          "Love and, then, what you will, do."

These words, says John Robinson, " constitute the heart of Christian prayer -- as they do of Christian conduct" (Robinson, 1963, p. 104).

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