Ever since I first came across Grant Kaplan’s essay on "Celibacy as Political Resistance", I’ve been musing over his central thesis. Although his subject is an ostensibly sexual one—celibacy—it’s one of the best short essays I’ve read in political theology during the past year, and I think it deserves to be much more widely read.
Kaplan’s central claim is that both papal primacy and clerical celibacy function as “spiritual declarations of independence for the modern Christian citizen.” Both of them “preserve Catholic identity, not by petitioning the state for rights but by mounting a theological counteroffensive against the pretensions of the modern nation-state.”
Clerical celibacy in particular “fosters an eschatological imagination.” It focuses sexual energies on the building up of the heavenly city—that Jerusalem which is above, and free, and our Mother (Gal 4:26)—and therefore relativizes the importance of the earthly city, resists the pretensions of the secular power to assume control over the entirety of our public reality, and provides a bulwark against the ever-present temptation to subordinate ecclesial identity to national identity. Celibacy is not merely a private spiritual discipline. The use celibacy makes of the body is a political statement that points to the existence of a polity that puts “national boundaries and loyalties in their proper context.”
I was reminded of Kaplan’s thesis recently while reading some of the work of Diana L. Hayes. Hayes is a womanist theologian (womanism, for those unaware, is a philosophy and theology grounded in black women’s intersecting experiences of gender and racial oppression). Unlike Kaplan, Hayes is not interested in being a standard-bearer for clerical celibacy, arguing that “honest, open discussions within the church on homosexuality, optional celibacy and married priesthood as well as women’s ordination are desperately needed.” Hayes is, however, celibate herself, and quite passionate about the value of celibacy today:
To be single and celibate … in today’s world is to be seen as something of an anomaly, someone out of sync with the times. The sexual revolution is usually interpreted as giving persons the freedom to engage in sexual intimacy without guilt or the fear of disapproval from others. As a vowed celibate laywoman, I believe, however, that that freedom has too often not just been interpreted as providing a sexual license to engage in any and all forms of sexual intimacy but, in actuality, as setting forth a mandate or demand that one must engage in sexual relationships or be labeled a puritan or prude. This overemphasis on “having” sex has too often forced us to overlook some of the more negative side effects to the sexual revolution.
Like the capitalist system that undergirds it, Hayes criticizes the way in which the sexual revolution provides an illusion of “freedom” while at the same time funneling sexual activity into narrow, predetermined channels that militate against communal flourishing:
Young people are constantly bombarded with media depictions of the “joys of sex”; they listen to music which is graphic in its depiction of sexuality and almost pornographic in its negative and derogatory depictions of women … Little information is provided in schools other than on how to use a condom, which most can’t afford or be bothered with. Nothing is said about alternate styles of life which uphold and promote humanity while providing a positive outlet for feelings with which many young people are still grappling.
Like capitalist consumerism as a whole, the specifically sexual consumerism of the post-1960s sexual revolution gradually enslaves people by producing an increasingly large amount of the same desire that it alone purports to be able to satisfy, yet only satisfying that desire in increasingly diminished proportions. Instead of the straitjacketed view of freedom offered by the sexual revolution, Hayes proposes celibacy as a witness to a genuinely “responsible freedom” in the use of one’s own body and in one’s disposition toward the bodies of others “in today’s world of instant gratification”:
I take my status as a vowed celibate laywoman very seriously … For me, the celibate state provides, not a selfish freedom of self-indulgence and irresponsibility, but a responsible freedom to live a life of service … The ethic which guides my life is the response to the question cynically raised by Cain to God after he slew his brother Abel. “Am I my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?” My answer is an unequivocal yes … My single state has freed me not only to assist family members when in need [ … but also] to work on behalf of others, to develop loving and close friendships with both men and women without the tensions that such relationships too often bring when the possibility of sexual intimacy is present. It has also required me to live with loneliness and to feel, at times, unloved and forgotten … [But] for me, and I believe many others, a sexual ethic of singleness built upon the foundation of celibacy is a viable way of being in today’s world, open to God’s call, and free to respond often with very short notice.
Hayes is not the only writer to have hinted at the potentialities of celibacy as politics in a post-sexual revolution capitalist milieu. Queer theorist Benjamin Kahan’s 2013 monograph Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life is probably the first study to focus solely on celibacy within the field of queer theory. Kahan criticizes queer theorists for ignoring celibacy or seeing it as merely a “closeting screen” for sexual identity, rather than itself constituting a coherent identity and set of practices. Through an investigation into the lives of an assortment of pre-sexual revolution bohemian figures, Kahan attempts to re-situate celibacy within a history of “radical politics, of feminist organizing, of black activism, queer citizenship, and other leftist interventions.” Instead of ceding celibacy to “the Right,” Kahan argues, leftists should reclaim “the radical political potential that nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and activists found in the practices of celibacy.”
Going a little further back, secular feminist Sally Cline’s regrettably little-read 1993 book Women, Celibacy and Passion opens with a statement that defines an anti-capitalist agenda for contemporary celibacy and echoes Hayes’s fears that the sexual revolution is less about creating freedom than about “setting forth a mandate or demand” to engage in sex:
Celibacy raises eyebrows because it is an act of rebellion against the sacred cow of sexual consumerism. This is a consumer society. An assumption built into it is that we should all be eager consumers of sexual activity.
Cline focuses on the way that the sexual revolution creates false consciousness (although she doesn’t use the Marxist term of analysis). Though it masquerades under the banner of “freedom,” the sexual revolution has ushered in an era of “compulsory genital sex” backed up with a veneer of objectivity by the jackboots of experts who churn out allegedly unbiased scientific studies exalting both the psychological and physical “benefits” of regular sexual activity and the purported physiological harms and emotional strains of sexual abstinence (a view very different from ancient medicine, which tended to see maximum retention of sexual energies as the key to robust health). We are no longer, she argues, “in the realm of sexual freedom, we are in the arena of sexual oppression”—particularly for women:
Masters of manipulation have managed successfully to portray the sixties as a time of freedom for women, when in fact it was not freedom as such but freedom to have more sex more often provided it was pointedly directed towards male pleasure … It gave men more access to women’s bodies, it justified male promiscuity and power, and it encouraged a separation between body and emotion, or sexual behavior and loving feelings. It may have been male sexual liberation, but for women it must more aptly be named Genital Appropriation.
Cline notes, wryly, that even sexual activities once considered perverse are increasingly accepted not because, as we like to tell ourselves, we live in a more open and tolerant society—we are just as censorious as ever about sexual practices of which we disapprove—but rather they “are tolerated on the grounds that they at least involve genital activity.” Any form of sexual activity between consenting adults helps to reinforce the prevailing mythology of sexual freedom and the cult of compulsory sexual activity created by the confluence of the sexual revolution and modern capitalism.
I am not particularly interested in defending the practice of celibacy within the Catholic Church merely as—as it currently is—a disembodied disciplinary norm for clerics. But I am interested in, and disturbed by, the process that has led to its being disembodied. The reason celibacy no longer makes sense even to most Catholics does not really have that much to do with—as some conservatives allege—the post-1960s progressive thirst for novelty. It results from a much deeper (and frankly more insidious) process within recent Catholic history during which the praxis of celibacy has become disengaged from its social and political contexts—and therefore disengaged from any robust moral foundation—and instead presented merely as a pious personal practice that helps clerics to perform more effectively in their “job.” Contemporary Catholic celibacy is frankly almost unrecognizable when compared to the vision outlined by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, and this vision, along with the celibate life of Jesus, must surely be the source to which the Church continually returns in every age when thinking about celibacy.
As so many patristic scholars have shown, the high regard for celibacy in the early Church was not a matter of individualistic piety—of being “married to Jesus”—but a form of political re-configuration. Just as Kaplan points out that the discipline of celibacy puts “national boundaries and loyalties in their proper context,” for the early Christians celibacy functioned as one mode of resistance to the Roman insistence on subordinating the body to the state, and on a cult of compulsory reproduction for the sake of the allegedly eternal Roman fatherland. With a few exceptions made for Vestal Virgins and eunuchs, those who refused to reproduce were penalized by the state, just as those who refuse to subscribe to the prevailing sexual orthodoxy are increasingly subject to some form of penalty in our own times.
In this age of rapacious capitalism and of compulsory sexuality, there is potential for celibacy—and not just for clerics and religious—to make sense as political praxis more than at any time in Christian history since the reign of Constantine. But a restoration of the proper respect due to celibacy will require fewer pious platitudes and a deeper attention to both the Christian Tradition and to the social and political contexts in which Christians find themselves today.