For some time now I have held the conviction that the marriage debate, while very important, may be having an unintended, negative cultural effect. Namely, with all this focus on marriage, an already marginalized demographic is being further neglected: virgins or otherwise single and chaste persons.
Yesterday, Michael Bradley offered an excellent reflection on the need for more intentionally compassionate rhetoric and action from advocates of the traditional, conjugal view of marriage. In particular, however, I was struck by a comment he made toward the beginning of his article:
If marriage -- which (well, almost) everyone acknowledges is a relationship built upon sexual relations -- is simply the pinnacle of meaningful relationships, anything short of marriage is necessarily sub-optimal; such a view is thrust upon us by a hyper-sexualized culture that has blurred if not buried the distinction and difference between our longings for intimate union and sexual gratification. Not surprisingly, the same people who see the Church’s teachings on homosexuality to be cruel and unusual are the same folks who fail to see the deeply beautiful point about religiously-consecrated celibacy, or the committed (and chaste) single life. The cultural view seems to boil down to a perceived need for and entitlement to sex.
In my experience this criticism ought not to be limited to the secular nor even to religious supporters of same-sex marriage. While intellectuals such as George, Girgis, and Anderson have offered a nuanced view of the traditional, conjugal definition of marriage, too often, I think, people from every persuasion have bought into the idea that “anything short of marriage is necessarily sub-optimal.”
As evidence of this, Katelyn Beaty recently offered her own reflection on the challenges of living as a Christian single in the midst of such a heightened focus on marriage:
[S]o long as marriage ascends into the echelons of existential imperative -- you must have this in order to be a complete human being -- then my singleness becomes a problem. It is no longer a unique witness to the kingdom, where people "will neither marry nor are given in marriage." [Matthew 22:30] It no longer reveals that the water of baptism is thicker than blood -- that an entire generation of Christians could be single, and still God would renew his church. Instead, it becomes a second-class existence.
Unfortunately, I had trouble turning up solid research on singleness and virginity in the Church (perhaps this demographic is also unduly neglected by pollsters), but I would not be surprised if Beaty’s experience is far from unique.
In one of my own reflections on virginity earlier this year, I shared an anecdote worth revisiting here:
I remember attending a wedding once with my then-girlfriend Kelly, to whom I am now happily married. The pastor literally began his sermon by telling the bride and groom, “Today you are complete.” At which point Kelly looked over at me and said, “Sorry, Jesus….” Jesus Christ did not need to be married to live a complete human life nor, indeed, to complete human life for us. Too often, Christians speak and act as if this were not the case.
While the demeaning of the single may be an unintended consequence of the marriage debate, I strongly suspect that it also happens to be a major cause (the major cause?). That is, if marriage had not long ago already been culturally redefined -- including among many Christians of all traditions and persuasions -- as an “existential imperative” and “the pinnacle of meaningful relationships,” would anyone have objected to the status quo? The popularity of calls to allow same-sex relationships into this classification demonstrates that such a redefinition has already taken place. And so long as that is one’s definition of marriage -- even if only in deed but not in word -- it is, indeed, unjust to bar such inclusion.
But note -- and this is my point -- the root of the problem is not ultimately about marriage at all. It is a misconstruing of Christian anthropology. To unnaturally elevate marriage necessarily requires demeaning virginity and chastity. The presumption (often tacitly assumed and contrary to what is explicitly taught) is that one’s telos as a human being cannot be achieved apart from marriage (and, of course, sex). Despite confessing that our true joy and fulfillment lie in a life of virtue in communion with Jesus Christ (notably born of a Virgin), the cultural mores of even conservative Christians sometimes sadly contradict this confession. The result is a marginalization of a whole group of people among us who have something valuable to contribute to the Church and society precisely as single persons. Historically, the contribution of virgins to theology, philosophy, ethics, politics, science, art, and nearly every other area of culture and life has been immeasurable and in many cases could not have been achieved if they had been trying to cultivate a healthy married life at the same time.
“I wish that all men were even as I myself [i.e. celibate],” writes St. Paul. “But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Corinthians 7:7). At one time Christians assumed that a chaste, unmarried life represented “the life according to excellence,” to use the phrase of St. Gregory of Nyssa. In this they did not disparage the value of marriage (contrary to common stereotypes), but merely acknowledged that a life devoted exclusively to Christ, the true Bridegroom of us all, provides an uniquely effective means for the attainment of virtue, communion with the divine, and true, eternal joy. And the loss of this perspective is a true loss for us all.
I do not mean to discourage people (on any side) from continuing such an important discussion as the marriage debate, but only to offer a plea that, perhaps, Christians need to devote a little more energy to promoting (and living) the good of chastity and, as a result, to keep their anthropological assumptions in check.